What a round that was and best of all, we were proved utterly wrong in a lot of our assumptions when it came to South Africa! Argentina rewarded our belief in them and we really hope that they can finish their best Championship ever in style for the final two rounds.
However, our biggest shout out has to go to South Africa. We have to be honest after the shambles in Brisbane we really didn’t think they had it in them to knock over the All Blacks in their own backyard. You could forgive us for being a bit sceptical as the Springboks record on the road for the last few years has been truly woeful. Nevertheless, a big apology from all of us here to South African players and supporters alike as you pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Test Rugby in the last few years, and in doing so threw the form book out the window. In short, heartfelt congratulations to South Africa and we were absolutely delighted by the result.
What was perhaps even more important about the result in Wellington was that it showed that put New Zealand under pressure, and they are no longer the seemingly invincible juggernaut that we have come to see them as. Let’s be honest they are still the world’s best, but up till now very few teams have been able to put them under the kind of examination they were subjected to in Wellington by South Africa. The Springboks did manage to do it last year in Cape Town and the Lions last summer, but other than that it was only that famous Irish win in Chicago two years ago that really gave us a glimpse of what New Zealand looks like when things aren’t going their way. They are simply not used to being under the gun like that and as a result when they are, they make highly uncharacteristic mistakes as their usually unshakable composure shows some cracks. Make New Zealand play catch up rugby and they suddenly become vulnerable. Nevertheless they still showed that they can catch up and quickly. It was only some truly heroic defence by South Africa in the final ten minutes that enabled the Boks to hang onto a two point lead, as New Zealand banged relentlessly on the door.
Meanwhile in Australia, the Wallabies looked dysfunctional against an exceptionally well-drilled and focused Pumas side. The difference between the two was there for all to see. Argentina played as a well-oiled group of skilled players with everyone seeming to know exactly what they were supposed to do for the full eighty minutes. Australia meanwhile played as a disorganised group of highly talented individuals, none of whom seemed to be cognizant of any kind of game plan whatsoever. There is no denying the ability Australia possesses but against Argentina it just wasn’t harnessed into a collective effort. While the calls for Coach Michael Cheika’s head have increased since the match, we share the common belief that a year out from the World Cup this would be a serious mistake. Cheika has a good team, he just needs it to click, something Australia seem to have a habit of doing once the World Cup actually gets underway.
As for Argentina they seemed to have weathered the storm of a coaching change a year out from the World Cup exceptionally well. We always felt that Ledesma was likely to be the breath of fresh air that a talented group of players needed, and so far we haven’t been proved wrong. Watching the post match press conference it was clear that Ledesma has developed an instant and effective rapport with his players that increases by the minute as the results continue to roll in. Just like they did a year out from the last global showdown in 2015, Argentina are suddenly starting to look like the dark horse they seem to always be around World Cup time. Let’s face it after the results of Round 4, Ireland ranked second after New Zealand, are perhaps feeling a tad more nervous about the World Cup. Their likely quarter-final opponents are South Africa which if they survive that match is probably going to be followed by a semi-final date with the Pumas – shades of 2015 again anyone?
Anyway without any further ado here are our five talking points for what should be a thrilling weekend of Test Rugby in Round 5 of the Rugby Championship.
South Africa vs Australia,
Saturday, September 29th
South Africa return home triumphant, after their epic win over New Zealand in Round 4. Their confidence from that victory will be at an all time high, while the Wallabies head out on the road after recording only one win in the Championship so far. Australia know they need to be dramatically better than they were against Argentina in the last round, but against a Springbok side that have suddenly found their groove and in front of an ecstatic home crowd, the Wallabies have set themselves an exceptionally difficult task. Port Elizabeth has traditionally been kind to the Springboks and the home crowd will do everything in their power to ensure that this reputation continues.
Australia need to play as a team
Australia’s talents, especially in the backs are there for all to see, however against Argentina they tended to play as individuals rather than as a team. Consequently, key linkages were missed and plays rarely seemed to be connected, relying instead on individual opportunism with little support from the rest of the team. On Saturday, they will really need to develop some forward parity with South Africa while at the same time harness this to a clearly defined strategy of releasing their world-class backs – something we simply didn’t see against Argentina.
South Africa will be exceptionally difficult to beat up front
While we wish Australia the very best of luck on Saturday, we are really finding it difficult to see how they are going to be able to gain much traction against a fearsome looking Springbok forward pack, that really clicked into gear in New Zealand. We were delighted to see the one potential weak link in South Africa’s scrum, Tighthead Prop Frans Malherbe really step up to the plate in New Zealand. South Africa may be missing Warren Whiteley who played out of his skin in Wellington, but it is still a daunting set of eight that will take on a Wallaby front row that faltered against the Pumas, a second row that simply came off second best especially at lineout time and a back row that is still struggling to click despite the presence of legends like David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Australia’s problems here aren’t going to get any easier once the Springbok bench comes into play as their front row replacements are of exceptionally solid calibre especially with Steven Kitshoff. Add into the mix the truly awe-inspiring figure of lock RG Snyman and flanker Marco van Staden who has been impressive at the Bulls and Australia will continue to struggle to get the upper hand. Without any kind of forward parity on Saturday, Australia simply won’t be able to give their world-class backs the opportunities they need. We fear it’s going to be a long day at the coal face for Australia on Saturday.
The Wallaby fly half question
We thought after Round 4 that Australia might have made some changes here, especially against a team possessing enough forward prowess to completely suffocate any kind of open play and space, exactly the kind of environment Kurtley Beale needs to operate in if he is to create any kind of magic from the fly half position. We’d argue that either Bernard Foley or Matt Toomua are better at managing games from such close quarters. However, Foley remains relegated to the bench and Toomua to inside centre, a decision we feel that Australia are likely to regret on Saturday.
Have Australia learnt anything from Round 4?
In a similar vein to our last point, we continue to be surprised to see no changes to the composition of Australia’s back field. We think Australia would get a lot more out of their attacks if they resort to a more tried and trusted formula of having Kurtley Beale alongside Reece Hodge at centre, and Folau back at fullback rather than on the wing. Furthermore, move Dane Haylett-Petty back to the wing and Matt Toomua out of centre and into the halfback position. The current setup simply didn’t seem to work against Argentina, and against a powerful and dominant Springbok forward unit we just can’t see it getting the space it needs to operate in once more. Folau gives Australia better defensive options under the high ball at fullback, while Hodge is a bruising runner and tackler and also has a lethal boot to get Australia out of danger. Beale seems to operate better in the loose play of the centre channels leaving Hodge to do the contact work. While Haylett-Petty performed well at times in the fullback position against the Pumas, it is on the wing where we feel his pace and skill is at its most dangerous. We wish Coach Michael Cheika well here on Saturday, but if this backfires once more then he is likely to expose himself to yet more criticism and calls for his head.
Have South Africa finally found the way to use Elton Jantjies?
As regular readers know we don’t have much faith in Jantjies as a Test level fly half, however in New Zealand he performed admirably once he came off the bench. Perhaps this is the way forward, as he finds the pressure of playing in the starting berth at number 10 too much. When he came on in Wellington, although New Zealand were putting South Africa under increasing pressure he seemed to take confidence from the fact that South Africa had still outsmarted their All Black foes for the first hour. Perhaps he simply performs better when he has to maintain rather than establish a system of game management, as was the case in Wellington.
Cheslin Kolbe vs Marika Koroibete – the most fascinating contest on the field
Much of what happens here on Saturday will dictate how this game ends up playing out. Koroibete is a big man who is exceptionally difficult to stop once he has a head of steam, however, his defensive liabilities are well documented, and the tiny and elusive figure of Cheslin Kolbe will be a real challenge for him. On the other hand should Koroibete get released down the wing, despite Kolbe’s bravery we just can’t help feeling that this is a serious mismatch in size and could go horribly wrong for South Africa.
Given our concerns above, particularly in Australia’s back field composition, and South Africa’s clear dominance up front it is difficult to see anything other than a Springbok win. Yes, you could argue that South Africa didn’t manage to pull it off against the Wallabies in Round 3. However, they then went on to beat New Zealand in Wellington while the Wallabies with this lineup lost at home to Argentina. The Wallabies consequently have more to prove than South Africa, but they are a long way from home and South Africa will be riding a wave of confidence and euphoria from their supporters that will be hard to contain. We were proven dramatically wrong in our predictions in Round 4 when we essentially wrote South Africa off against New Zealand. While we were more than happy to eat our words once Nigel Owens blew the final whistle, we have trouble believing that we will be doing the same once Jerome Garces calls time in Port Elizabeth this weekend. Consequently we are giving this one to South Africa by eight points on Saturday!
Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, September 29th
We’d like to thank Mario Ledesma and his men for proving us right in Round 4, by getting the Pumas a long overdue win on Australian soil. While many had Australia taking the victory, after watching the Pumas put in such a huge effort against New Zealand in Round 3, we were convinced that a big win on the road was theirs for the taking. If it makes any sense Australia weren’t overly convincing in their Round 3 win over the Springboks, whereas the Pumas made everyone sit up and take notice in their loss to New Zealand. The Pumas look like a team whereas Australia still look like a group of individuals, albeit highly talented ones.
Despite this though, even at home and buoyed by that win over Australia we still feel that the Pumas’ first All Black scalp is not quite up for grabs yet this Saturday in Buenos Aires. New Zealand are smarting from their loss to South Africa in Round 4, and sadly Argentina are going the feel the full force of that disappointment despite a sellout crowd of passionate fans wishing for the opposite. New Zealand are missing a key presence in the shape of Captain Kieran Read, but it is still a team that is more than capable of setting the record straight in terms of New Zealand’s dominance of Test Rugby despite the upset of Round 4. Either way a great match should be in prospect and one which we are really looking forward to.
The fade factor
We’ll get the elephant out of the room first. We have always traditionally looked forward to the Pumas last two home games in the Championship, as we feel that at home in front of their passionate supporters they can really turn it up another level. However, in recent years we have to confess to having been slightly disappointed, as the Pumas seem to run out of puff in the final two rounds despite home advantage. Nevertheless, this year we feel that Argentina are much less likely to disappoint. They will be clearly riding a wave of confidence brought about by two wins and their best ever Rugby Championship campaign since joining the competition in 2012. While we still feel that a victory over the All Blacks may be too much to hope for, a strong performance in this match should set them up well for their final match and a possible second victory over the Wallabies a week later.
Who will kick for New Zealand?
Beauden Barrett may be one of , if not the best, fly halves in the world, but of increasing concern to New Zealand management is his inconsistency in goal kicking. There is no doubt that key points were left behind in their Round 4 match against South Africa which ultimately meant the difference between winning and losing. Without the services of Damian McKenzie as backup this weekend, the next most likely candidate is Jordi Barrett but he is also not in the matchday 23. Consequently it will be left to replacement fly half Richie Mo’unga to make amends with the boot if the contest is one in which such points could make the difference.
The return of Sonny Bill Williams
To be honest this is another puzzling call for us. New Zealand selectors seem to have a fascination with Williams that in our opinion doesn’t quite match up to recent form. We don’t deny that he has made considerable impact in an All Black jersey in years gone by, but recently we see it less and less and see him as a rather predictable player these days. For us, the Crotty/Goodhue partnership alternating with Anton Liennert-Brown is clearly the way forward for New Zealand come the World Cup. Consequently, we are looking at Williams inclusion in the starting XV as an investment in back up depth for the World Cup, despite the media’s excitement about his return and nothing more.
The return of the Pumas scrum prowess
Coach Mario Ledesma has clearly lamented the decline of one of Argentina’s traditional strengths. Will we see a return of one of the Pumas legendary weapons in the shape of Ramiro Herrera, Agustin Creevy and Nahuel Tetaz on Saturday? Herrera and Creevy have a long history together and their partnership adds a great deal of weight and experience to the Pumas front row campaign. Herrera has been plying his trade in France this year, and his return to the Pumas fold will be welcomed by many Argentinian supporters, after previous Coach Daniel Hourcade’s stance of not including overseas based players. This should make for a great contest with the relatively less experienced but exceptionally capable All Black front row.
How much will Argentina miss Ramiro Moyano?
When you have a player who can do this………A LOT!!!
Matias Moroni moves from the centre to cover for Moyano this weekend who is absent due to injury. Moroni is a fine player in his own right but is clearly happier and more effective up the centre channels. There is no question that Argentina has produced some fantastic wingers in the last five years – Santiago Cordero, Ramiro Moyano and most recently Bautista Delguy are just a few examples. If Moyano can keep New Zealand’s Naholo in check, without necessarily creating the magic that Moyano is capable of then Argentina should feel more confident, as Delguy on the opposite wing should be able to provide more than enough spark when needed.
Without some key personnel, New Zealand will not quite be the side that ultimately dismantled Argentina a month ago. However, after the loss to South Africa they will have a point to prove and even a long way from home and in the noise of the Estadio José Amalfitani, they will be very hard to beat by a determined and confident Pumas side. If the Pumas can go into half time with not only a lead but a strong lead, then there is the whiff of yet another huge upset in this year’s Championship. As much as we would love to see that happen in terms of the impact it would have on the global game, we just don’t see it. Consequently, Argentina to put in another performance demonstrating moments of sheer genius and a solid team effort, but New Zealand to ultimately pull away with it by 13 points!