With the Rugby Championship done and dusted, there is plenty to talk about in relation to Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as they head North of the Equator in one of the most keenly anticipated November Test windows in years.
This year’s Rugby Championship was one of the best we can remember for a long time, and although New Zealand once again came out on top they were made to work exceptionally hard for it by South Africa. The resurgence in South African rugby was there for all to see despite them lacking the focus they needed at times. Argentina proved that they are dangerous once more and are showing signs of peaking at just the right time for the World Cup next year. Australia meanwhile appeared to lurch from one crisis to another, and narrowly avoided the wooden spoon in a comeback for the ages in their final match in Argentina.
Much was learnt by all four sides in the course of the tournament, but here’s what got us talking as we looked back on a riveting competition.
New Zealand may have misfired on occasion but they are still the team to beat!
Sure New Zealand suffered their first loss in the Rugby Championship in a very long time and at home to boot. They were clearly put under pressure by the Springboks in Wellington and it was something they are simply just not used to. The same happened in the reverse fixture in Pretoria, and even Argentina gave them some serious grief in Nelson at times. However, before everyone starts getting carried away with saying that the All Blacks are vulnerable, take a look at those three matches in a bit more detail. In the case of the Pumas game, New Zealand as they always do soon exerted a stranglehold on the match in the second half. In both Springbok Tests, the All Blacks were made to chase the game, something they have never had to do since that encounter with Ireland two years ago in Chicago. However, in both games against the Springboks the winning margin was a mere two points. The All Blacks struck back hard in the second half of the two games against the Springboks and narrowed the gap. In Wellington they came short as they simply couldn’t crack a super human Springbok defence, but in Pretoria they had done their homework and found the key.
Bottom line – put them under pressure and you can beat them on the day, however the phenomenon of two All Black losses in a row still looks the stuff of fantasy for their opponents. The ability of this team to learn from their mistakes and regroup, coupled to a seemingly bottomless pit of talent in terms of depth, is something to be feared. Consequently, we very much doubt they will be knocked off their perch at the top of the World Rugby rankings this November. Someone may trip them up next month, and the most likely candidate would appear to be Ireland, but it is still a very tall order indeed.
Argentina may well be the surprise package of November
We could easily see the Pumas getting two wins this November and even giving Ireland some serious food for thought. The Pumas were outstanding for the most part in the Rugby Championship and will be more than a match for Ireland, France and Scotland. They ironically seem to play better on the road than they do at home. Ireland is probably a bridge too far for them, but Scotland and France must surely be targets well within their reach. Their only real concern heading into next month is a faltering scrum but even that was beginning to show signs of life again come the end of the tournament. However, they need fly half Nicolas Sanchez to be at his absolute best for all three games, as he is absolutely vital to how well the Pumas play. As we saw in the final Rugby Championship game against Australia, take him off the field and Argentina lose a lot of the shape that had everyone talking this summer. Argentina have the talent to fix their set piece issues, particularly at scrum time, but the lack of depth at fly half is a concern. However, their back row and back three are truly world-class!
Australia would appear to be the new France?
Australia have a relatively easy schedule ahead of them next month compared to their usual November fare. There is the small matter of Bledisloe 3 to contend with in Japan this Saturday, but we doubt it is likely to produce the kind of turnaround in Wallaby fortunes that the same encounter did last year. Firstly it is away from home, and Australia have not fared well on the road in the last few years. Secondly, a very vocal and excited Japanese crowd are likely to swing behind the favorites New Zealand.
However, here’s the rub as we witnessed against Argentina in the final match of the Rugby Championship – two different Australian teams showed up in that game. The first half team were appalling and looked like rank amateurs. Their grilling by Coach Michael Cheika in the changing rooms at half time is already a YouTube sensation.
What that rant did do though was produce a completely different team in the second half, one that actually looked like a Wallaby side of old. While we don’t think for a second that Australia’s fundamental problems, of which there would appear to be many, were fixed in the final forty minutes of Australia’s Rugby Championship campaign, it was clear that there is enough talent in the team to make life difficult for their November opponents. Whether or not it will take similar tactics in the dressing room by Coach Michael Cheika to get results remains to be seen. However, the question is clearly there, much like French teams of old, which Australian team will now show up on any given Saturday next month?
How much will the Springboks miss Faf de Klerk next month?
As we saw in the Rugby Championship, South Africa are once more back on the world stage and a force to be feared. Their historic win in Wellington against the All Blacks is already the stuff of legends, and served to make one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries one of the highlights of the Test calendar each year – no matter who you support. The fact that this rivalry had become rather one-sided in recent years towards a group of individuals in black shirts, had meant that Test rugby had lost one if its greatest annual spectacles. Not so this year, as we were treated to two epic encounters that showcased the best in terms of the skill and physicality that these two sides bring to such contests.
South Africa put in some great performances, but at the same time they will rue their losses away to Argentina and Australia. We are not convinced despite the win in Wellington that they have managed to exorcise their away from home demon. Furthermore, scrum half Faf de Klerk was a key component of that historic win in New Zealand. So far we have yet to see a suitable understudy, and the Springboks will be without his services for the entire November Test window. South Africa have a very good team, but much like Argentina at fly half they need some genuine depth in the scrum half position, something we are not sure they have. They will be exceptionally competitive next month, make no mistake and if they are able to fill the void de Klerk leaves then we could see them taking home four wins on the road to cap a remarkable year. We wait and see with bated breath, making South Africa the hardest team to bet on next month.
Australia vs New Zealand in Japan – a dress rehearsal for next year’s semi-final?
Depending on how the pools play out, and the quarter-finals there is a chance that these two may be meeting in Japan again next year in a semi-final. Either way, whatever happens this Saturday, the two teams will have jumped the gun on the rest of the tournament’s competitors on what it feels like to play to a capacity crowd in the host country for next year’s global showdown. Australia clearly have more to gain from the exercise than New Zealand, as a win on Saturday would give them huge confidence going into a November series that will need to pay dividends for them if they are to put some gloss on what has been a truly dismal year. New Zealand have the Bledisloe Cup sewn up, but a match against their trans-Tasman rivals is never taken lightly and the desire to make it three from three will mean they are likely to take no prisoners. At the same time they will want to lay down a statement to the Japanese public that once Japan’s tournament ends, most likely in the pool or quarter-final stages at best, they are the team for the host nation to get behind. It may be a dead rubber in terms of silverware, but it is likely to have plenty of intensity as a showpiece teaser for next year’s World Cup.
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 next month with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content. In the meantime here’s their excellent review of the last round of the Rugby Championship.