We learnt three things last weekend as Round 3 of the Championship wrapped up. Firstly, New Zealand are seemingly invincible whether or not they put out their first, second or third string teams. The Pumas are back with a vengeance and along with New Zealand are playing the most attractive and exciting rugby in the Competition. Lastly, South Africa and Australia are just not clicking and are in serious danger of duking it out for the wooden spoon, especially if Argentina get a win over the Wallabies this Saturday.
The match in Nelson between the All Blacks and the Pumas was classic Test rugby and a worthy spectacle that kept us glued to our seats, much more than the 46-24 scoreline for New Zealand would suggest. There was some spectacular attacking rugby from both sides, and Argentina were unlucky to be denied a try by the narrowest of margins. It was high-octane rugby played at a blistering pace by both sides with some outstanding displays of skill. Argentina may have come away with a loss, but the standard to which they played and the skill and composure they showed will put them in good stead for an encounter with a Wallaby side who are clearly struggling to shape an identity. New Zealand meanwhile showcased the truly staggering depth of talent they have available to them a year out from the World Cup. There were a raft of names we may not have been that familiar with on Saturday, but they all stood up and made us take notice.
The same could not be said of the contest between Australia and South Africa in Brisbane. It was a scrappy and unattractive game with little imagination or creativity on display from either side. Australia in the end did enough to get the win, but there was little else to celebrate. Australia could argue they were without key playmakers in fullback Israel Folau and back rower extraordinaire David Pocock. However, if they are to really challenge for the World Cup next year, they need to lay down some markers without these two key players, but there was little on display last Saturday to make that look like much of a possibility. South Africa meanwhile simply had no shape or cohesion, and apart from some acts of individual brilliance they once again showed what a poor team they have become on the road, leaving one with little confidence in their abilities next year in Japan. In short, a poor game between two sides that looked distinctly average for the full eighty minutes.
For Australia and South Africa, this coming weekend could further erode the confidence both teams seem to be lacking. New Zealand looks to teach South Africa yet another painful lesson about life on the road and a hungry Pumas side looks set to cause Australia a multitude of problems.
On that note here are our five talking points for each match.
New Zealand vs South Africa
Saturday, September 15th
While the result may not be in doubt, there are a multitude of questions, particularly in relation to South Africa that will need answering on Saturday in Wellington. South Africa’s abysmal record away from home is unlikely to change this weekend at the hands of a ruthless and merciless opponent in the shape of New Zealand. It is a sad reflection of where South African rugby now finds itself, that a fixture that would once have been one of the highlights of everyone’s rugby calendar no matter who they supported, has now degenerated into a rather predictable and one-sided affair – at least when it is played in New Zealand.
New Zealand however, are taking no chances this weekend and still regard the Springboks as a daunting and potentially troublesome opponent. The memory of the match between these two in Cape Town last year will still be fresh in Coach Steve Hansen’s memory. A side the All Blacks had blitzed 57-0 earlier in the Championship last year, suddenly turned up and ran them close, losing by just one point. Nevertheless the Springboks at home are a different animal, and while we don’t see the same kind of scoreline in prospect this coming Saturday, we are still expecting a fairly sizeable points difference in the All Blacks favor when referee Nigel Owens blows the final whistle.
The Springbok scrum is likely to be the start of South Africa’s undoing, especially at tighthead
Don’t get us wrong, Malcolm Marx is a truly remarkable hooker and one of the best in the modern game, but even he seems to be misfiring at key moments this season. Steven Kitshoff is also a very fine player, but sadly both he and Marx will show their brilliance in individual play rather than hard at work in the engine room of the scrum.However, it’s Frans Malherbe at tighthead who seems to be a consistent problem for South Africa and a cause of their undoing in this part of the park, much the same as Ruan Dreyer was last season. Expect to see Wilco Louw on sooner rather than later.
The Hooker and Prop are enormous talents and exceptional strike threats in their own right. However, for us Marx has not quite been up to the standards we have come to expect from this remarkable player. His lineout throwing has been a bit hit and miss and he hasn’t been the turnover animal he was last year. South Africa need the Marx edition that caused New Zealand such a headache last year in Cape Town. Kitshoff may struggle in the scrums but he is exceptionally dangerous once play has broken up, and he is someone South Africa will be really counting on to bring the unexpected.
Back row imbalance continues for South Africa
With Pieter-Steph du Toit out of position once more, Warren Whiteley seeming a shadow of himself and only Siya Kolisi really able to cause a stir in the loose, this is a trio struggling to find some much-needed cohesion. All three of these players are world-class in their own right but sadly they seem to be unsure of what is expected of them as a unit. What has concerned us most is how quiet Whiteley has been during this tournament.
Jantjies didn’t have a good game last weekend, but let’s be honest Pollard hasn’t looked the part either
Elton Jantjies did nothing last weekend to convince us that he is any closer to being a Test fly half, but by the same token Handre Pollard also hasn’t been the Messiah that everyone is touting him to be. We hate being down on players, but have really struggled to find much hope for South Africa in the halfback position. We, like many, felt that Pollard was the answer, but so far this year, with the exception of the two England Tests in June he started in, Pollard like Whiteley simply hasn’t turned up. His goalkicking is beyond poor and his game management has looked unsure and distinctly average. He is going to get tested to the limit by the world’s best player in the shape of New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett, and sadly we feel that he is once more going to be outplayed. Barrett is likely to throw him off his game, and Pollard seems to go to pieces under that kind of pressure.
With Ryan Crotty back, New Zealand surely have their starting centre pairing/bench for the World Cup
There was much talk this week of Sonny Bill Williams’ return to the bench for New Zealand at centre. However, as regular readers of this blog know we just don’t see the fascination with the man. For us, the Ryan Crotty/Anton Lienert-Brown combination is the way forward for New Zealand as it packs so much power and creativity, whereas with Williams in the mix it becomes slightly more one-dimensional, albeit with plenty of brute force. Now that we are all familiar with Jack Goodhue who will be on the bench in place of Williams, we feel that this is the centre trio that is likely to be developed as Steve Hansen’s first choice for the World Cup.
Meanwhile South Africa’s centre pairing also gets changed around but we are not holding our breadth
Sure Damian de Allende didn’t have a bad game last weekend, but that’s about all you could say for it. Jesse Kriel remains one of the most predictable centres in Test Rugby, which has led Coach Rassie Erasmus to put him out on the wing, a position he is not familiar with and to make matters worse, he will be trying to shut down one of the most exciting new talents in New Zealand and Test rugby Rieko Ioane. We wish him well but can’t help feeling that he is in for a long and uncomfortable night as a result. Lukhanyo Am has shown some real brilliance against weaker teams, but up against the All Blacks’ Ryan Crotty we fear he is about to have the ultimate defensive test. In short, we fear South Africa are going to get cut to pieces up the middle of the park on Saturday.
We don’t predict the kind of blowout we saw in this fixture last year, but it still isn’t going to be comfortable viewing for Springbok supporters. New Zealand are fielding a much more ominous looking bench, and once the sixty minute mark ticks over on the clock expect to see New Zealand run riot on the scoreboard. Till then South Africa should be much more competitive, despite leaking a few tries, but at the same time scoring the odd try of their own. Ultimately though, trying to get a win from a seemingly unstoppable All Black express and on home ground to boot, is completely beyond this Springbok team in their current state, despite some of the talent they have at their disposal. As a result the Springboks should be in the match for a longer spell than last year, but ultimately end up on the wrong side of the score sheet by a considerable margin. New Zealand to run away with it in the final quarter by 50-12!
Australia vs Argentina
Saturday, September 15th
Given the rather predictable outcome of the first match this Saturday, this game is likely to be the highlight of the weekend. Both sides will be looking to get their second win of the Championship, with Argentina looking perhaps like the more tricky opponent after the scintillating attacking rugby they put on display against New Zealand last Saturday. Against any other team other than the All Blacks that would have been a match winning performance, and expect them to bring that same can do attitude and sublime skill set to Australia.
Australia meanwhile breathe a huge sigh of relief as two of their star playmakers, fullback Israel Folau and back rower David Pocock return to the starting lineup. However in Folau’s case he finds himself on the wing, and we feel that this may be something Michael Cheika may regret as it is not a position he plays regularly and will be up against a very impressive and elusive looking Ramiro Moyano for Argentina. Australia need to find the kind of creativity that we know they are capable of if they are to get past a very capable and well-drilled Pumas side, and thus avoid a race to the bottom with South Africa.
Is this the match where we see Argentina reassert some of their traditional scrum dominance?
Coach Mario Ledesma has spent much of the week bemoaning the deterioration in one of Argentina’s traditional strengths – the scrum. Under his tutelage given his own personal experience at the coal face in a Pumas jersey, you’d think he could start to get Argentina back to the kind of form in this part of the park that made them such a fearsome force in years gone by. They will be up against it as Australia do seem to have made some progress here, albeit even though many of the same disciplinary problems still plague them. If Argentina can combine power with discipline here then this could signal a healthy return to one of their core strengths, especially as we really liked the effort their replacements put in last week against New Zealand.
Argentina are going to cause Australia all kinds of problems at lineout time
Now that Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini is playing with his head instead of his heart, despite needing the biggest box of tissues of any Pumas player during the national anthems, the Pumas are packing some real firepower here. With Guido Petti alongside him who is able to work magic with any spilled ball in the lineout, this is a very difficult Pumas unit to deal with and one which Australia are going to have to be at their defensive best to contain.
Even with David Pocock Australia are going to have their work cut out coping with the Pumas back row
Once more we fear that David Pocock is going to be asked to singlehandedly perform miracles for Australia here, against a fearsome Pumas unit that is firing on all cylinders. Javier Ortega Desio, Marcos Kremer and Pablo Matera are gelling exceptionally well as a unit, and the bench replacement Juan Manuel Leguizamon is no stranger to this kind of high stakes match. This is Pumas power at its best, and in many ways has compensated for the dip in their scrummaging prowess, as their loose forwards have become a complete menace.
The Kurtley Beale experiment
Although he can play at number 10, we just don’t feel that this is where Beale should be for Australia. Consequently, given that we felt he was rather quiet and invisible for Australia in this position last week, we were more than a little surprised to see his name on the team sheet at fly half and Bernard Foley once more on the bench. The pressures of overall game management seem to put Beale in a straitjacket and constrict the kind of blink of an eye creativity he is able to produce from running the centre channels. We don’t really understand Coach Michael Cheika’s logic in this decision, especially given Argentina’s current prowess at fly half and in the centres, as this kind of creativity and opportunism is exactly what is needed against a set of very pacey and elusive backs.
Why do you need to swap Folau out onto the wing and put Haylett-Petty at fullback?
Much like the Beale experiment we are feeling slightly perplexed at Coach Michael Cheika’s rationale once more. While Haylett-Petty can play fullback, his role as the last line of defense is likely to constrict the kind of creativity he is able to produce out wide, especially given his speed. If we had been making the calls we would have preferred to see Reece Hodge at fullback and Haylett-Petty back in his more traditional spot on the wing. Given Folau’s recent injury we also thought it would have been better to bring him on as an impact substitution in the final quarter, especially if by that stage Argentina are controlling the game to their advantage. We feel that Hodge is a better defensive option, if not at fullback where his massive boot would have come in handy, then at least out on the wing trying to contain Argentinian danger man Bautista Delguy.
The general media consensus is, that despite Australia’s poor form of late, home advantage should seal them a win over an Argentinian team that traditionally tends to have a little less than required in the tank for this match after facing up to the All Blacks the week before. However, we beg to differ. Argentina are looking once more like the side that tends to peak just at the right time to cause some real havoc at the World Cup. Therefore we are bucking the odds and saying a fired up Pumas team, that is clearly on an upwards trajectory with all signs pointing to Japan next year, will take what should be a thrilling and absorbing contest by two points!
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