After Round 1 we still hold that this is going to be one of the most open Rugby Championships in years – between three teams that is! New Zealand may trip at the odd hurdle, and the possibility of one upset in Pretoria at the end of the tournament is not beyond the realm of possibility. However, seeing any team other than the All Blacks lifting the trophy on October 6th is hard to imagine. What we do expect to see though is an exceptionally feisty competition amongst the other three competitors, and in the process a much closer race than we are used to seeing in recent times.
It was a fascinating opening weekend. The All Blacks once more showed some vulnerabilities that could have been exploited by Australia had they not decided to implode at the 35th minute. Australia looked weaker in many ways than they did in their initial first half blowout last year to the All Blacks in Bledisloe 1. New Zealand looked shaky at the beginning with a plethora of uncharacteristic errors, but once they clicked into gear we got a frightening foretaste of what the rest of the world is likely to be up against leading up to Japan. Unlike last year, Australia simply got worse as the match wore on. There were concerns again about New Zealand’s goal kicking when left to Beauden Barrett, and had he had his kicking boots on the score would have been much more humiliating for the Wallabies. However, his control of the game and brilliance in open play more than made up for any inaccuracies from the kicking tee.
Meanwhile in Durban, the Springboks got the job done, and they clearly improved as the match wore on while the Pumas started to fade. Nevertheless, there was no question that despite some problems Argentina, under new Coach Mario Ledesma, mean business. As their first outing under new management, we felt it wasn’t all that bad and there was enough evidence out on the pitch that this side should only get better. The Pumas biggest challenge will be to build the momentum to the point that, come their final two home games, they can provide a serious challenge to New Zealand and Australia and not fade away as they have done in the past for these two fixtures. South Africa struggled in the first half, but improved dramatically as the match wore on and players settled into their roles. There are defensive liabilities in the backs, despite the brilliance in attack by players such as Lukhanyo Am, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Makazole Mapimpi and the Springbok back row were working overtime on occasion against their Pumas opposite numbers. On the flip side South Africa really seemed to be building on the momentum they gained during their Series win against England. Add further finesse to an already impressive looking forward contingent and a Flash Gordon back line, and it is South Africa who are already looking like the side most likely to challenge New Zealand’s supremacy. However, there is the small matter of a follow-up date this weekend on Argentinian soil with a Pumas outfit who should be slightly more clinical than they were last weekend.
On that note here are our five talking points for each match.
New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 25th
Whichever way you cut it, that was a poor Australian performance last weekend. While it may not have mirrored the first half blowout they experienced last year in the opener against the All Blacks, they struggled to impose any kind of authority after the 35th minute, and their set piece play in particular fell apart. The scrums looked a mess, the lineouts were a bad joke and even Pocock and Hooper were struggling to throw the All Black back row off-balance, despite some brilliant individual efforts. Meanwhile the half backs and back line had a rather quiet night. The Wallabies once more seemed to be struggling with the definition of defence and at times looked a little short in the fitness department.
There is no denying that New Zealand struggled to fire in the first 30 minutes, and some of us actually were starting to think rumors that the mighty black juggernaut was missing some gears might actually be true. They simply looked a long way off their customary polish, and were committing a multitude of uncharacteristic handling errors. It didn’t stay that way for long though and apart from Beauden Barrett’s goalkicking, once the team fired they just looked unstoppable as they proceeded to score tries at will. The ball handling skills on display in the opening try by Aaron Smith were a case in point.
Australia’s scrum goes back to the bad old days of 2016
By the end of last season we really felt that Australia’s scrum had finally sorted itself out, barring the odd hiccough and was well on the way to recovery. What we saw last Saturday completely shattered this belief in a new dawn for Wallaby scrummaging prowess. There is no question that they were at a disadvantage against such an accomplished unit as the one New Zealand brought to the table. However, they just looked lifeless and rudderless. Given the fact that South Africa’s scrum is back to its best and Argentina are looking ominous here once more, this is something Australia is clearly running out of time to fix. We just don’t see much salvation for them this weekend in Auckland.
Are Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick the most terrifying Second Row partnership in Test Rugby?
Yes – enough said! Is there anyone who can really go head to head with these two for eighty minutes – we very much doubt it. Retallick in particular was at his barnstorming best last weekend. If you don’t believe us have a look at this performance by the man who reminds us of Jaws in James Bond! They own the lineout and while Australia’s Adam Coleman will definitely have a crack this weekend, he and his partner Izack Rodda were so far off the mark last Saturday, it’s hard to see anything other than continued all out dominance by the two Kiwi giants.
David Pocock alone cannot rescue Australia
The great man once again showed off his remarkable abilities last Saturday, in one of the few glimpses of genuine Wallaby prowess. While his back row partner Michael Hooper spent far too much time trying to develop a post playing career in refereeing, Pocock was immense for the Wallabies. Furthermore, his genuine concern for All Black centre Ryan Crotty during a nasty head knock, even though Pocock was not involved in the actual passage of play, highlighted the amazing camaraderie and sportsmanship which is still such a huge part of our beloved game. Pocock is without doubt one of Test Rugby’s greats, but despite his remarkable talents Australia are clearly too reliant on him to perform miracles.
Beauden Barrett is not the world’s best goal kicker – but does it really matter?
Sure if he’d brought his radar boots last Saturday, then the score would have been more humiliating for the Wallabies, but when you have the kind of footballing skills that he used to score his own try then we’d argue the goalkicking is simply icing on the cake. Also let’s be honest – he still has a goalkicking success rate of well over 70%. Add that to his mastery of game management and perhaps the only gentleman who can hold a candle to him right now is Ireland’s Johnny Sexton. We simply don’t see the same calibre in any of the other Rugby Championship squads’ offerings.
Can Australia really compete in the backs without Israel Folau?
The loss of Folau for such a crucial match is a clear body blow to Australia. Although Dane Haylett-Petty may be good under the high ball, we thought it would have been wiser to have Reece Hodge and his mighty boot shoring up the last line of defence. Australia’s backs just didn’t fire last weekend, and we have a hunch that they are just as likely to be out of sync this Saturday without Folau. Jack Maddocks scored a fine try on debut, and Australia need much more from Kurtley Beale than his one-off contribution to that effort. Now that we all know who New Zealand’s Jack Goodhue is in no uncertain terms, along with Ngani Laumape and the other All Black suspects it is likely to be a long and painful evening for the Wallabies at Eden Park on Saturday.
This time last year many were writing off the Wallabies’ chances in Dunedin after a shambolic performance in the opening round of the Championship. They then proceeded to come within a hair’s breadth of the upset of the tournament by almost beating New Zealand in the second round. The transformation of the Wallabies was quite remarkable, so you may wonder why we don’t think the same is possible this time around. The Wallabies in the second half of Bledisloe 1 last year, despite the horrors of the first, showed some real promise and a sense that they had the belief and skill set to turn things around. We just didn’t see any of those kinds of qualities last Saturday. To dredge them out of nothing and on the road to boot, in one of the most inhospitable places on earth for visiting teams, is just too much to ask. Consequently, at home and on the hallowed and seemingly invincible turf of Eden Park, New Zealand to run away with this one by twenty-five points!
Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 25th
We have to admit to being slightly surprised at the negativity surrounding Argentina’s performance last Saturday. Agreed they lost, and were ultimately comprehensively beaten by a better Springbok side. However, they were leading by 14-10 at half time, and much of what they did put on display in that first forty minutes caught our attention. There was a drive and committment in the squad that we simply didn’t see in June. The players are clearly responding to new Coach Mario Ledesma and feeding off the energy he brought to turning around the Jaguares’ fortunes in the recently concluded Super Rugby tournament.
South Africa got their campaign off to a successful start but were less than happy with many aspects of their game and know they will need to be much more clinical in a tough away fixture against a Pumas side likely to have improved. Fly half Handre Pollard missed far too many kicks which kept Argentina in touch with the scoreline for much of the match. The Springbok backs while being lethal in attack, still looked slightly out of sorts defensively once Argentina managed to build up any kind of flowing attack of their own. Just as he did against England in June, scrum half Faf de Klerk really made the difference in turning what could have been an ordinary Springbok performance into something memorable. We’re a huge fan of the Jack Russell number nine who also seems to be able to tackle way above his pint-sized frame. An absolute nightmare for opposition defences, he will be key to South Africa’s build up to Japan next year. Throw in Hooker extraordinaire Malcolm Marx and South Africa look problematic whichever way you cut it. Enforcer Eben Etzebeth seemed to suffer no side effects from his long layover due to injury and was back to his uncompromising physical best. In short, as the Championship wears on, expect this squad to look more and more like the finished product.
Even if Argentina are able to maintain some kind of scrum parity they won’t be able to contain Malcolm Marx.
With Marx being able to play any part of the park and shore up any shortcomings in the scrum, it will be hard for Argentina to get any sort of upper hand here. With the “Beast” backing him up and Frans Malherbe having a respectable outing last Saturday for South Africa, Argentina are still likely to be at a distinct disadvantage in the set pieces. Despite Marx struggling to find his targets in the opening stages of the match when it came to lineout time, he still managed to recover the ball for South Africa on numerous occasions. Essentially whatever problems South Africa may have in set pieces they can rely on Marx as the “fixer”, something Argentina simply don’t have up front, despite the inspirational form and ability of Agustin Creevy.
One of the best second row battles of the tournament
Grab a ring side seat for this one. On the Pumas side you have the passion and power of Tomas Lavanini up against the equally ferocious and physical Eben Etzebeth for South Africa. Meanwhile the X-factor champion of the second row, Argentina’s Guido Petti meets the work rate and sheer all round ability of South Africa’s Franco Mostert. Four very contrasting players all of whom are ferocious competitors. Many of Saturday’s battles will be won and lost here for both sides. We are delighted to see RG Snyman get some more Test experience for South Africa, albeit from the bench, as he was one of the standout performers in the Springboks demolition of England in June.
Expect the Pumas back row to really click this weekend
We thought this was one of the strongest aspects of Argentina’s performance last Saturday, and an area where we felt the South Americans looked more cohesive and dangerous than the Springboks. Marcos Kremer and Pablo Matera clearly made life difficult for South Africa, and on home soil we expect them to be even more problematic. Tomas Lezana was equally impressive off the bench and expect more of the same from him this Saturday. In short, if this unit develops the finesse it needs it will be a key platform for the Pumas as the Championship progresses, particularly against Australia – a side Coach Ledesma knows only too well.
Handre Pollard needs to find his accuracy as the fly half dilemma is still a concern in South Africa
In controlling the game and being a fly half willing to throw himself into the fray, Pollard did not disappoint last Saturday, however missing five out of seven kicks at goal is simply not something the Springboks can afford. The fly half question continues to dog South Africa and although we think that Pollard offers what South Africa needs in terms of game management his accuracy needs to improve. However, with Elton Jantjies not being the answer South Africa is looking for, we didn’t see much from Damian Willemse that gave us much confidence that the Springboks really have any depth here for the World Cup. We hope this weekend will provide some markers.
The Bautista Delguy breakout
We’re going to see it sooner or later in this tournament, and our bet is in one of the Pumas three home games. While South Africa’s backs stole all the headlines last weekend, the world will need to keep this young man on their radar. Despite the loss last Saturday, the winger was often in the thick of the action and always a threat. An exciting player who reminds us of another promising Puma winger who caught the eye a few years ago, Santiago Cordero, but with twice the physicality. Expect him to be snapped up by a French club before year-end, but with the relaxation of the overseas based player rules for the Pumas in time for the World Cup, he’ll be back and the rest of the rugby world has been warned.
We are going to gamble here and despite the evidence that says we are probably barking up the wrong tree, we are throwing caution to the wind and giving a nod to the Pumas, albeit by slimmest of margins. It will be a tight, physical and highly emotional match but we just feel that the Pumas are going to kick back into life any day now, and this could be the spark that sets it all in motion. We have a sneaking suspicion that the Pumas could just start peaking for the global showdown in Japan at exactly the right time, just as they did a year before the last World Cup. Agreed it’s a bit of a long shot, but we think it’s worth a roll of the dice. Therefore, Argentina to surprise us all, but probably not themselves and take an edgy encounter by two points!
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