The second round of the Rugby Championship dispelled any rumors of an Australian comeback, while the new-found optimism surrounding South Africa seemed to evaporate quickly. New Zealand as expected were clearly in a league of their own, with fly half Beauden Barrett producing a Man of the Match performance for the record books. However, the big surprise package was Argentina. We had a hunch that the Pumas under new Coach Mario Ledesma were likely to be a different animal than the one we saw in June. In their first outing against South Africa there were hints of a transformation in progress, but with plenty of kinks to work out. However, it appeared that they only needed a week to sort things out, as they put in an outstanding performance in Round 2 in Mendoza and blew a bewildered Springbok side off the park. There is no question that New Zealand in their current form are clearly a bridge too far for anyone. However, South Africa are already limping from a Pumas mauling and Australia will be no doubt feeling more than a little anxious about the South Americans.
New Zealand were remarkable in Round 2, and at least against Australia seemed to settle into a pattern by the 35th minute of both matches. Unlike last year, Australia were completely unable to hold a candle to their trans Tasman rivals, and there was no second half or second leg revival of Wallaby fortunes. The All Blacks seem to hit their straps between the 35 and 38 minute mark, and after that it is all over but the crying for their opponents. Australia look a shadow of the side that produced so much spirit last year against New Zealand in Bledisloe 2. Disorganised and looking woefully short on fitness, the Wallabies just don’t look the part this year and even the older and wiser heads in the squad seem reluctant to steer a floundering ship.
The Pumas treated us to a thrilling and clinical performance at South Africa’s expense in Mendoza in Round 2, getting a thoroughly deserved win over the Springboks in the process. The Springboks simply couldn’t get a game plan going, and their suspect defence in the backs was exposed by the Pumas lethal back line, while their forwards more than held their own against South Africa’s traditional dominance up front. Argentina will travel to New Zealand feeling confident that they can certainly provide a worthy challenge to the Men in Black, and while few see an upset on the cards, New Zealand is clearly treating the Pumas challenge with the respect it deserves. South Africa meanwhile travel to Australia desperately seeking to turn things around, but let’s be honest their track record on the road doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
On that note here are our five talking points for each match.
New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday, September 8th
While the result may perhaps be a foregone conclusion, even with the experimentation in the All Black side, we still feel that this should be a highly entertaining match from both sides. It is worth bearing in mind that in this fixture last year the Pumas headed into the tunnel at half time in the lead. Even though New Zealand inevitably seems to pull away dramatically from the Pumas in the final quarter, the South Americans put up a worthy challenge, and certainly do not seem intimidated by playing the All Blacks in their own backyard. If Argentina are able to play well on Saturday and even keep within 10 points of the All Blacks, the Wallabies are likely to feel more than a little anxious about meeting them in a week’s time. Argentina seem on a good trajectory with their new Coach Mario Ledesma, and if you look at history they seem to be on a similar path to where they were a year before the last World Cup with a raft of exciting talent.
New Zealand are not underestimating their opponent but clearly see this match as an opportunity to give some of their less experienced players an opportunity to prove themselves against a tough challenge. New Zealand know they have the depth and as a result are much more comfortable than other teams to rotate players and build the necessary experience. In short, they can take risks few other teams are able to – such is the confidence in the depth of their player base.
After last week’s heroics – Beauden Barret gets the night off!
In a word remarkable. In 40 years of watching Test rugby, we couldn’t remember a performance like Beauden Barrett’s in Round 2. He may not quite be the tactician that some argue he should be, and his goalkicking is just a shade short of the accuracy demanded at this level, but when you can do this what does it really matter?!!!! His ability to read the ebb and flow of a match and take the opportunities that are then presented in the blink of an eye is unequalled in Test rugby. In short, a truly unique player. While he may not have the big picture sensibilities of his predecessor Dan Carter especially under pressure, not that there are many sides who can put him under pressure, there is no denying that he is likely to be remembered as one of the great players of this generation.
Richie Mo’unga finally gets the first dance!
All eyes will be on the Crusaders fly half on Saturday night in Nelson. He has been the talk of the season, with many seeing him as the natural understudy to Barrett for the number 10 jersey. Some have even said that he should be sharing the starting duties with Barrett, but after Barrett’s exploits in Bledisloe 2, Mo’unga will have to produce something pretty special to make the incumbent feel he needs to watch his rear view mirror more closely. New Zealand has two World Class number nines, and if they can use this Championship to develop two number 10s of equal calibre then there won’t be many people betting against them in Japan next year. Mo’unga looks the complete package and has plenty of X-factor of his own, he simply lacks international experience – something which the All Black management will no doubt be seeking to address as the countdown to Japan is now in full swing.
The return of the pocket rocket!
We are delighted to see the return of winger Nehe Milner-Skudder after a long battle with injury since the last World Cup. He was one of the players of the year leading up to the last World Cup for us, and we are really hoping that Saturday will mark the start of a significant contribution by Milner-Skudder to New Zealand’s World Cup campaign. Fast and elusive but also exceptionally strong in defence, he is a player we find exceptionally exciting to watch. His defensive abilities will be key in keeping the Pumas Ramiro Moyano in check, as the Argentinian winger is looking decidedly dangerous.
The Matera factor
When the team sheets came out yesterday, many people ourselves included were surprised to see flanker Pablo Matera starting on the bench. On reflection, we actually see this as a stroke of genius. There are going to be some really hard-fought battles between the second and back rows in Nelson with both sides packing some impressive firepower. We feel that the Pumas back row in particular is one of the most impressive looking units in Test rugby right now. Matera gives his starting spot to Tomas Lezana who has consistently impressed us even in Argentina’s poor showings in June. Consequently, Lezana should be able to more than hold his own, and then at the juncture when the Pumas traditionally start to fade in the final quarter, in comes the leadership of Matera to take over from starting Captain Agustin Creevy who rarely lasts beyond sixty minutes against New Zealand. Matera is no stranger now to the Captain’s jersey and his presence in the final quarter will hopefully do much to keep the fires burning that Creevy is so good at starting. If the Pumas forwards are able to keep parity with New Zealand for much of the match then New Zealand’s backs may not quite have the kind of free rein they have become accustomed to.
Will this be the game where the Pumas finally go eighty minutes against the All Blacks?
Looking at the bench for the Pumas, we can’t help feeling that this is Argentina’s key objective for Saturday. Their track record of fading dramatically in the final quarter against New Zealand is well documented. If they really want to go the distance next year in Japan, then staying within reach of a team like New Zealand right to the end must surely be something they will want to work towards. Without any disrespect to one of our favorite teams, we just can’t see Argentina pulling off the first big upset in the Southern Hemisphere this season. However, what we do feel they are setting their sights on is trying to stay within ten points right up to the final whistle. While even this may be a challenge, we feel that it is not beyond the realm of possibility and would be a huge confidence boost for the South Americans heading into their match against Australia the following weekend.
Beating the All Blacks in their own backyard is a challenge similar to lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan next year. Argentina will bring plenty of firepower and passion to the cause this weekend, but it is unlikely to be enough to take down a team that is constantly setting new benchmarks. With all the changes being made by New Zealand however, this is perhaps Argentina’s best shot, short of playing them in Argentina, of walking away with a result that still has them in touch with the scoreline at the final whistle. New Zealand to walk away comfortable winners in the end by 12 points, but are likely to face their most unpredictable opponent of the season so far this year.
Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, September 8th
Australia imploded a second time against the All Blacks in Round 2, appearing to be a team that had little to offer past the forty minute mark both in terms of fitness and skill. South Africa once more showed that they are a team that struggles to achieve success away from home – slightly worrying when you consider that the entire World Cup takes place a very long way from home.
We had hoped that despite the odds seeming to be against them, Australia would pull off the kind of performance they did last year in Round 2 of the Championship in Dunedin after everyone had written them off. It wasn’t to be and unlike last year, Australia seem to be struggling much more with their identity as a team. Their fitness levels look suspect and the drive that we saw last year appears to be lacking at times. Furthermore, despite some exceptional talent, especially in the backs there has been little on display that would indicate that Australia in their current state know how to use that talent. Add into the mix an overwhelming reliance on loose forward David Pocock to constantly get Australia out of jail, and Australia simply look disjointed and short of ideas, despite the genius of playmakers like centre Kurtley Beale.
All the promise that South Africa showed during the Series victory against England in June and the opening round of the Championship against Argentina, seemed to evaporate in the Mendoza sunshine. South Africa got bossed around up front in no uncertain terms by a better organised and disciplined Pumas forward pack. Handre Pollard failed to exert any control over the game from the half back position, unlike his Pumas opposite number Nicolas Sanchez who controlled the Argentinian game plan with Swiss like precision. Finally a lethal Pumas set of backs cut South Africa’s already suspect defences to shreds. South Africa simply have to do better and must surely have struggled to find answers to their rather alarming dip in form.
South Africa’s track record away from home is starting to read like a script from the “Walking Dead”
There is no getting away from the fact that if you lose enough times under certain circumstances it starts to affect you psychologically and that must surely be a problem facing South Africa as they start a two-week tour of Australasia. Since the World Cup in 2015 South Africa have only won three games outside of South Africa. Whichever way you cut it that make for scary reading. While they didn’t actually lose this fixture last year in Australia, they only managed a draw which is scant consolation. South Africa clearly have a problem on the road, and somehow need to find some quick and lasting answers before their big road show next year in Japan.
Were Coaches Rassie Erasmus and Michael Cheika sharing a few friendly prematch pints when they came up with the teamsheets for this match?
Like us, we imagine you were fairly surprised to say the least when you saw the lineups for such a crucial match for both sides. Sure we respect the need for squad development ahead of the World Cup, but in a match both sides have to win do you really want to be that experimental? Sure in South Africa’s case a few of their players were clearly not at their best in Argentina, but is wholesale change the way to develop the skills and confidence needed at this stage? A bad day at the office at Test level is a lot like falling off a horse, the most important thing is to get back on it. In South Africa’s case, Hooker Malcolm Marx and Handre Pollard may have fluffed their lines at times in Mendoza but they are still the way forward for South Africa in both positions. Fullback Willie le Roux, lock Eben Etzebeth and prop Frans Malherbe also had poor games, but you don’t see them being replaced, though in Malherbe’s case that is puzzling to say the least.
For Australia, fly half Bernard Foley lost the plot in Round 2 quite badly but we’re not sure that switching centre Kurtley Beale to number 10 is the answer either. Beale is more likely to create the magic he is known for as a free agent in the centres than in a game management role. Oh well pass us that pint will you?
This must surely be Elton Jantjies’ last chance saloon?
Continuing on the above theme, we really are scratching our heads on this one. We hate to be down on a player, but as we have said time and again and as is borne out in hard evidence through results, Elton Jantjies is not a Test level fly half and especially not on the road. While he may be a fine player at Super Rugby level, he seems poorly suited to the pressure and decision-making required at Test level. All too often he resorts to an erratic and pointless kicking game which throws away any possession and momentum South Africa may have gained. Saturday is surely his last chance to prove he has what it takes. If it doesn’t go well in such do or die matches as Saturday, then he surely becomes the reserve number 10 to Pollard till a more suitable replacement can be found. If he does prove us all wrong on Saturday, and for his sake we sincerely hope he does, then South Africa has a real dilemma as to whether or not he starts an even bigger match against the All Blacks the following week, considering how badly he was schooled in New Zealand last year in the same fixture.
How much will Australia miss David Pocock?
As you may recall from previous blogs, we have enormous respect for Australia’s David Pocock and consider him to be one of the finest exponents of the modern game, both in terms of skill and sportsmanship. However, as he singlehandedly and tirelessly attempted to dig Australia out of the hole that was Bledisloe 2 a fortnight ago, with little or no constructive support from his teammates, you have to wonder for how long he can keep it up. He was clearly showing the physical strain two weeks ago especially as he is only recently returned from injury. Without him on Saturday night, Australia are likely to be a shadow of their potential in this part of the park, but this is a golden opportunity for the back row trio of Samu, Hooper and Tui to really find the glue that gives them the advantage over a Springbok unit that is struggling with cohesion and direction.
South Africa has to click defensively at the back
South Africa’s defensive woes are now well documented, especially out wide. However, once more we are surprised at the tinkering for such a key match. We thought Centre Andre Esterhuizen had played well on attack and defence, Partnered with Jessie Kriel he would have been a more solid defensive option than Damian de Allende, who much like Elton Jantjies is simply not a Test level player despite whatever form he may have in Super Rugby. Furthemore, we just can’t see Cheslin Kolbe getting the better of Australia’s Jack Maddocks once these two come off the bench for their respective sides. We predict trouble here as Australia are packing some potent attacking threats in Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koroibete and the incomparable Israel Folau. If Kurtley Beale is really able get this four into space it is going to be a very long and uncomfortable day a the office for South Africa.
Both sides head into this match under enormous pressure, which makes some of the team selections all the more bizarre. However, despite this we still feel that Australia have made a better go of it, and there is no question that they pack a lethal set of backs that will make life exceptionally difficult for South Africa. Furthermore, it’s Brisbane and Suncorp Stadium which is an exceptionally happy hunting ground for the Wallabies. Add into the mix a strange selection policy by South Africa, even allowing for some of the political vagaries that inevitably affect it, South Africa’s truly dismal track record away from home and the contest clearly favors Australia. Having said that we still expect a tight match, as there is enough collective talent within this misshapen South African squad which if it clicks could be one of the surprises of the tournament. However, when all is said and done and referee Glen Jackson blows the final whistle we expect to see Australia walk away withe spoils by five points!
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.