Yes it’s back, and we are genuinely excited about the 2018 edition of the annual dust up between Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa that will keep us glued to our TV screens for six Saturdays between now and October.
The action kicks off on Saturday, as tournament favorites New Zealand travel across the Tasman to take on a continuously improving Australian side. Saturday will also see the first round of the famous Bledisloe Cup competition between these two rivals, and to some fans on both sides of the Tasman this is almost of greater importance than the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan next year. New Zealand will still take some beating and the odds of them lifting the silverware yet again in six weeks time appears rather inevitable. However, as we’ve seen since the Lions tour to New Zealand last year, there are some uncharacteristic vulnerabilities in this All Black squad – the armor still seems pretty impenetrable but there are definitely some chinks in it. Australia meanwhile are clearly improving even if consistency is not one of their strong points. The Wallabies seem to have taken a leaf out of France’s book – brilliant one day a disaster the next. It’s hard to reconcile such contrasting performances as their victory over the All Blacks in Bledisloe 3 last year against their subsequent 53-24 blowout against Scotland last November a few weeks later. However, against the second best team in the world at the moment, Ireland, Australia looked exceptionally competitive this June. Media hype and mind games aside, New Zealand given their own wobbles during the past year, are likely to be feeling more than just a little anxious about Saturday’s proceedings in Sydney.
Meanwhile in Durban, a Pumas side under new management in the shape of Coach Mario Ledesma have their first outing against a Springbok side clearly revelling in the change to their own coaching structure which took place in June. South Africa’s new Coach Rassie Erasmus already has a series win against England under his belt, and in an albeit scrappy game managed to run Wales close in his first outing with the team at the beginning of June. Ledesma who was a superb exponent of Pumas rugby when he wore the jersey, brings enormous international experience to the Coaching role. He clearly had a role in taking a struggling Jaguares side in Super Rugby, and transforming them into playoff contenders this season. While the leap from Super Rugby to Test Rugby is a considerable one with no safety nets, the Pumas are unlikely to be as poor as they were in June under outgoing Coach Daniel Hourcade. It was clear that despite the successes under Hourcade during the last World Cup, his time had come and gone with the players and their performance clearly reflected a team just wanting to end one era and start a new one.
In a departure from our usual style in previewing Tests, instead of merely breaking down the individual head to heads, we’re highlighting five key points which we think will decide each match. So let’s get into it.
Australia vs New Zealand
Saturday, August 18th
Whichever way you cut it, this should be a cracker. Last year’s edition saw a first half in which the All Blacks utterly eclipsed a seemingly clueless Wallaby side, who were frantically digging out their dictionaries in the dressing room at the break to determine what the word defence meant. The Wallabies still ended up getting thumped, but their comeback in the second half was commendable and gave us a glimmer of what was to follow. In the return fixture in New Zealand the Wallabies were hardly recognisable from the seeming amateurs of the week before and were desperately unlucky to lose. The Wallabies still struggle at times with discipline, but defensively they are vastly improved and finally have a scrum that can mix it with the world’s best. From 9-15 Australia have a set of backs that immediately bring to mind the likes of Campese, Farr-Jones, Larkham and Lynagh among others. While the current Australian crop still have a long way to go before they approach the greatness of the names mentioned above, there are clearly signs that silky, dangerous Australian backs are once more a part of the Wallaby stable.
New Zealand on the other hand have surely learnt many of the lessons they needed this past season and in the process have developed some truly staggering depth across the park. On any given Saturday, All Black Coach Steve Hansen can put out two world-beating match day squads of 23 players. They may have not gelled together as well as he and his coaching team would liked at times this past season, but the next 13 months are surely going to be a process of simply putting the finishing touches on a robust All Black challenge for the World Cup and one which it would be hard to argue against if you were of the betting persuasion.
If Australia can hold parity at scrum time, will they have the edge when the bench comes into play?
We may be wrong but although New Zealand in our opinion have a better starting front three, we have a hunch that Australia may end up giving New Zealand short shrift here in the final quarter. While everyone is talking about All Black replacement loosehead prop Karl Tu’inukuafe, we are really excited to see Australia’s replacement front three of Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou in action. We feel that as a unit they are likely to be that much more cohesive than New Zealand’s replacement trio at a critical juncture in the match, especially if the scores are close.
Will New Zealand shutdown Australia’s Pocock and Hooper at the breakdown?
There is no question that on paper New Zealand’s back row trio should be able to clearly outmuscle Australia, if such contests are kept to close quarters. If however, Hooper is allowed to make himself a nuisance in the loose for the Wallabies and Pocock is back at his poaching best when it comes to one on one turnovers, then New Zealand could struggle in Sydney. The Wallaby duo play such a key role in setting up ball for half backs Genia and Foley, allowing them to unleash a fast and unpredictable set of Australian backs. Despite Pocock and Hooper’s brilliance, the presence and leadership of Kieran Read, and the brute power of Sam Cane and Liam Squire should ensure that the two Wallaby jackals will be kept at bay. In short, plenty of sparks to fly here with Kieran Read only just back from injury making this one of the most fascinating and exciting contests on the park on Saturday.
Beauden Barrett needs a BIG game.
The All Black fly half is still a master at his trade and a supremely gifted player, but there is no denying that he has lacked some of his customary spark and polish at times in the last twelve months. Furthermore, the dips in consistency with his goalkicking have been well documented. To add to the pressure the All Black incumbent is under, a certain Richie Mo’unga is snapping hard at his heels for the New Zealand number 10 shirt. Damian McKenzie on the bench is also a possibility, but we see him as far less of a threat to Barrett than Mo’unga. McKenzie is also equally lethal at fullback and for us, his versatility across the park means that he is less of a threat to Barrett than Mo’unga who is more of a specialist 10. Mo’unga will sit this match out, but is likely to get a starting berth at 10 sooner or later. If Barrett doesn’t deliver on Saturday, expect Mo’unga’s chance to come sooner than many are predicting.
Go wide and go left!
The left wing for both sides should see plenty of action on Saturday. It’s here where there is some exceptional speed and pace from both teams in the shape of Rieko Ioane for the All Blacks and Marika Koroibete for the Wallabies. While we think that Ioane is perhaps the more graceful and fleet of foot of the two, as we saw last year give Koroibete a head of steam and the man is almost impossible to bring down. Furthermore Koroibete has put in some immense try saving tackles and running into him at speed is clearly going to hurt. Ioane on the other hand makes up for lack of bulk with some genuine astuteness in his defensive positioning. Consequently the contrasting styles of these two will be fascinating to watch on Saturday, but if either team goes wide and out to the left then hang on to your seat!
The Beale factor
New Zealand may have a more complete, skilled and ultimately settled team, but there is no denying that there are some remarkable individual talents on this Wallaby team, and perhaps none more so than centre Kurtley Beale. The man is a cheeky magician, plain and simple and his ability to think on his feet is remarkable. Beale’s performances in the last year have for us been the highlight of Australia’s renaissance. He is a consistent game changer who, perhaps epitomizes more than any other Wallaby player, the danger and unpredictability of Australia’s set of backs. Even though he is playing at fullback here instead of centre, this short clip of his remarkable try against Wales last year illustrates the point.
We’re not saying that New Zealand don’t offer comparable quality in their centre offerings on Saturday, especially as we all know what a force Ryan Crotty is. However, it’s the X-factor that Beale brings that makes us think that in front of a raucous Sydney crowd, New Zealand will be working overtime to keep Australia’s mischievous court jester in check.
This should be a superb opening to what is likely to be one of the most open Rugby Championships in years. New Zealand are likely to dominate the forward battles, with their half backs ensuring the control and composure needed to get past an adventurous and talented Australian side. We very much doubt we’ll see the first half blowout we saw in this fixture last year, but New Zealand should still ultimately come out on top in a closely fought contest. Either way definitely a game you don’t want to miss. Australia will provide New Zealand with some nasty surprises at times through their backs and the Hooper/Pocock combination, but ultimately New Zealand will still have the overall class and pedigree to get the job done by six points!
South Africa vs Argentina
Saturday, August 18th
The last time these two sides met in Durban it did not go well for the Springboks by any stretch of the imagination. The Pumas ran rings around them at times, as they set the tone for the type of performances they were set to produce two months later in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. However, much like the Wallabies the Pumas have not been blessed with consistency despite their meteoric rise through the global rankings in the last ten years. To add insult to injury, the last two years have seen an alarming drop in the ability of the Pumas to get results. They may produce a spectacular 50-60 minutes of rugby, but then ultimately fade away. Perhaps more worrying is that they have clearly run out of puff by the time they get to their final two games of the Championship, which are both home fixtures, and as a result tend to exit the competition with a whimper, despite home ground advantage. Consequently, the new dawn that starts with Coach Mario Ledesma this Saturday is being eagerly anticipated by Pumas supporters and neutral fans around the world. When the Pumas play well they are a joy to watch and their passion and skill sets at times are unique. Ally this to a consistently powerful and fast forward presence and they are always a team to be feared.
The Springboks are also starting life anew under Coach Rassie Erasmus after the turbulent reign of Alastair Coetzee since the last World Cup. With a new Coach and a new Captain, Siya Kolisi who is also the first ever black player to hold the responsibility, much is being expected of the Springboks as they look to restore some much-needed pride to a battered jersey. They got off to a great start in June, with a 2-1 Series win over England and in the process highlighted a raft of new and exciting talent along with the resurgence of some valued veterans. In short, South Africa are back and mean business. There are still many questions that remain from the Coetzee era, and Erasmus still has a very long to do list, but there was no doubt that the Springboks on display in June showcased a potentially exciting future that embraced South Africa’s traditional strengths while adapting them to the pace of the modern game.
Malcom Marx – Best Hooker in the World?
In our humble opinion the simple answer to that question is yes. Possessing a phenomenal work rate that provides constant inspiration to his fellow team mates, Marx is far more than just a hooker. Playmaker, poacher, utility back – the list goes on. Feared by many opponents but respected by all – Marx is the complete rugby player. He goes up against a player equal in stature in the shape of Argentine Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy, but expect to see Marx still going flat-out at the eighty minute mark while Creevy is likely to be on the bench by 60. If Marx gets this team going on Saturday and for the rest of the Championship, then South Africa will be an almost impossible team to beat at home and a serious challenge on the road.
South Africa may dominate the lineouts, but beware the Pumas duo in space!
To be honest we are scratching our heads slightly at the omission of Bulls lock RG Snyman from the Springbok starting lineup for this match. South African supporters will be delighted to see the return of Eben Etzebeth from injury, and along with Pieter-Steph du Toit, the Springboks should dominate the lineouts. However, the Pumas duo of Mattias Alemanno and Guido Petti, in particular, are going to provide the South Africans with plenty of problems in the event of any spilled ball. Petti’s strength and speed were one of the talking points of the Jaguares’ Super Rugby exploits and Alemanno is no slacker either. We thought that in the recent England series with South Africa RG Snyman had the pace and power similar to the likes of Petti, and are thus rather surprised at his omission.
The most evenly matched contest on the park – the Back Row!
The contest between these six gentlemen on Saturday, will be worth the price of admission or your internet/cable subscription alone. For South Africa you have the former Captain Warren Whiteley alongside the new Captain Siya Kolisi, backed up by veteran Francois Louw. While Kolisi may not have had the best season at Super Rugby level, his performance in the June Tests against England was immense and his ability to provide leadership when his team found themselves in a corner was noteworthy. However, for us it’s the Pumas offering backed up by a solid bench that is the more daunting of the two back rows. In Marcos Kremer we think Argentina have one of the most promising newcomers in International Rugby and Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio are both exceptional and proven commodities. It’s South Africa’s bench where we feel they have more to prove in this part of the park than Argentina. Tomas Lezana has been outstanding for Argentina and the Jaguares over the last year, and South Africa’s Marco van Staden will be put to the test on debut in no uncertain terms by this powerhouse Pumas quartet.
The Springbok fly half question
Like most we breathed a sigh of relief to see Handre Pollard’s name on the starting sheet at number 10. Make no mistake we think that his rival Elton Jantjies is a very fine club/province player. However, as evidenced in the recent Super Rugby final and in the final June Test against England – a Test level fly half Jantjies is not. Under pressure he resorts to kicking away perfectly good possession for no visible gain. Furthermore we’ve noticed over the years that in South African rugby when the fly half starts aimlessly kicking away ball then the rest of the team seems to think it’s OK to do so as well. Pollard seems a much more precise player as well as being highly courageous with ball in hand. His composure seems to be much more solid under pressure as well. However, given the fact that he seems the clear and obvious choice, South Africa find themselves with 13 months to go, having little or no depth in such a key position. They’ll be utilising newcomer and Stormers fly half Damian Willemse from the bench, but although the talented youngster is getting a lot of praise, the Stormers rather dismal Super Rugby campaign isn’t exactly imbuing us with a lot of confidence. South Africa need to find answers here and quickly.
South Africa’s defense at the back will be sorely tested
Three names to watch for South Africa – Makazole Mapimpi, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Lukhanyo Am. The two wingers and a centre have ridiculous amounts of speed and ball handling skills, but defensively the jury is still out and this is an area where they will be fully tested on Saturday. For us Pumas winger Bautista Delguy is one of the most dangerous new attacking threats in Test rugby, and was one of the few positive aspects of Argentina’s dismal June series against Wales and Scotland. Hungry and exceptionally fit Delguy will put Dyantyi under all kinds of pressure on Saturday, while Ramiro Moyano will do the same to Mapimpi. Throw into the mix Pumas fullback Emiliano Boffelli who was one of the players of the year in 2017 and the Springboks are going to have to be very sharp at the back in Durban. They can take comfort from the fact that veteran Willie le Roux, who has rediscovered the form that made him such an exceptional player in the past for the Springboks, will be the last line of defence. Le Roux is playing some very smart rugby and got the Springboks out of jail on numerous occasions against England, as well as providing some scintillating counterattacks of his own. While Mapimpi, Dyantyi and Am can score tries at will, it will mean very little if they provide a porous defence in return for their attacking prowess and opportunism.
Argentina have the squad and Coach to pull off an upset in Durban, just as they did three years ago almost to the day. However, we think that as new Coach Ledesma’s first outing with Argentina it is unlikely, added to the fact that the Pumas still have to step up massively from the shambolic performances they put in during the Tests against Wales and Scotland in June. They will be exceptionally competitive make no mistake, and an exciting Test match should be in prospect with plenty of physicality and enterprise from both sides. However, it is South Africa coming off the back of a series win against England who are likely to be the more settled and composed side, especially on home soil. Therefore a tight encounter initially but South Africa to pull away by eight points at the final whistle!
As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our previews with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content.