The start of the Rugby Championship this weekend, the annual dust up between the Southern Hemisphere’s big four, marks the official start to the warm up process for the World Cup in Japan which kicks off in just over two months time from now. The competition as it always is in a World Cup year, is abbreviated down to six matches instead of the normal 12, and although the traditional silverware is still on offer, due to the radically changed format it doesn’t quite have the same value of non World Cup years. In short what the next three weekends are all about for the four countries involved, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is finalizing structures and getting a broad mix of experienced and inexperienced players to gel together ahead of the big show in Japan. Winning the Rugby Championship this year is likely to have little bearing on your chances come September, but being able to put in solid performances and consolidate your depth will say a lot about your preparations.
Consequently all four coaches will be looking to see what their squads are made of and what combinations work. Sure it will be nice to have some silverware to round off the experience, but consistency and an understanding of what’s in your toolbox will be of much more value to the coaching staffs and players alike over the coming weeks. For us there will be plenty to have a look at and lots of excitement on offer as players seek to lay down markers and really compete for those coveted seats on the plane to Japan. The focus may be less on the trophy and more on what can be put on show over the next three weekends, which ultimately should make for some great rugby entertainment. So while the Rugby Championship title may not really matter all that much this year, the tournament certainly will for the players involved.
Here’s what got us talking this week about what’s on offer on Saturday and what we’ll be looking at.
South Africa vs Australia – Saturday, July 20th – Johannesburg
There is lots of experimentation going on here from both Coaches, some injury enforced, but plenty done with an eye to depth in the tank for Japan. As mentioned above it should make for two sides who are perhaps less focused on the silverware and more on the opportunity to shine and thus book a trip to Japan. Of the two sides, South Africa perhaps looks the more familiar from a Test point of view, while Australia drafts in some players we haven’t seen for a while and gives some of the Super Rugby youngsters a chance to come to the fore in a Test jersey. Either way it should a be a fascinating match and one which should give both Coaches an interesting and much needed look at options with a view to Japan.
It may not be South Africa’s traditional front row, but it is going to make life more than a little challenging for Australia
Quite frankly with Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff out of the mix for this match for the Springboks, we were curious to see what Springbok Coach Rassie Erasmus would come up with. When we saw the starting XV we felt immediately reassured. For us Bongi Mbonambi has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years. He’s a competitor make no mistake and has been pivotal in securing some big wins for South Africa in recent years, even if it has often been from the bench. Consequently, seeing him get the starting nod for this match and a chance to show that he can deliver in some of South Africa’s key games in the pool stages can only be a plus for Springbok depth. Put him alongside Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and all of a sudden you’ve got a unit that can put some real pressure, especially at altitude, on a new look Australian front row. Trevor Nyakane on a good day can also add some bruising beef to the Springboks efforts at the coalface, and with Vincent Koch fresh from Saracens duty in England on the bench, Australia are likely to struggle to keep up here.
Australia do have some hope up front in the second row as they continue to produce some quality here
The Wallabies field a highly rated second rower in the shape of Rory Arnold and a very underrated one in our opinion in the form of Izack Rodda on Saturday. If they can keep their heads in the face of constant niggling from Springbok Captain Eben Etzebeth, then this Australian duo could spark some go forward ability for Australia especially at lineout time. Rodda in particular needs a big stage and this year’s Rugby Championship could really give him the platform he needs to secure that highly coveted ticket to Japan. Arnold and the injured Adam Coleman are likely shoe-ins but Rodda could really stand up and be counted on Saturday, and we think he may just get the better of Lood de Jager who hasn’t really caught our eye the last couple of seasons for the Springboks.
Even with the experimentation South Africa look terrifying up front and even pack a surprise in the back row.
South Africa seem to be going true to form in this match and are packing a formidable punch from 1-8. In short, there is only one real surprise in the starting XV, the inclusion of Toulouse flanker Rynhardt Elstadt. Oh hang on, did you see Toulouse’s road to the Top 14 title? If you did and some of their exploits in the European Champions Cup, then Elstadt’s inclusion suddenly becomes a no-brainer as he was a key player for the French side this season. His Springbok debut may be late at the age of 29, but there is no denying that his European exploits have earned him the jersey and then some.
It all looks great till 9 and 10 for South Africa
Australia are strong here and South Africa just aren’t plain and simple. Elton Jantjies just isn’t a Test level fly half, and although they are not related Herschel Jantjies doesn’t fill us with optimism either. Although he makes his debut for the Springboks, the Stormers scrum half had some great moments in Super Rugby against weaker teams, but was usually shown the door by stronger outfits during the competition. As for Elton Jantjies, as most readers of this blog know, there is just no faith there in his abilities to run games at Test level. South Africa’s biggest problem is kicking perfectly good possession away, a skill that Jantjies unfortunately excels at. We are fascinated to see Nic White back in action for the Wallabies after a spell in the Premiership in England with Exeter Chiefs. With Will Genia on the bench for Australia, South Africa could have real problems here on Saturday. Bernard Foley keeps things steady at fly half for the Wallabies, and we just can’t see South Africa having much to offer here.
This has to be Warrick Gelant and Tom Banks’ big chance
Australia is without the soap opera that comes courtesy of Israel Folau for this match and as a result we finally get to see what Tom Banks can do on the big stage. Although we felt he got marginalised by the Jaguares in the Brumbies Super Rugby semi final, there is no denying the impact the young dynamic fullback had on the Canberra outfit’s campaign this season. By the same token Warrick Gelant has increasingly caught our eye with the Bulls at fullback, and is starting to live up to the hype surrounding him in South Africa. If these two and the rest of their fellow backs on both sides can cut out the handling errors, then we could be in for a fast paced running game with both teams offering up some real speedsters in their midst. If Gelant and Banks can be solid in defence and set up the kinds of counterattacks that their wingers thrive on then we could see some genuine fireworks on Saturday. Gelant will be more comfortable with the thinner air of the high veld, so it will be fascinating to see if he can really turn the screw on Australia in the aerial game.
Australia perhaps have more to prove than South Africa in this match, and with the Springboks having home advantage, the Wallabies couldn’t ask for a better start to their World Cup warm up. South Africa though may be making life harder than it needs to be in terms of game management, especially given the wealth of experience Australia offer in Bernard Foley, Nic White and Will Genia. If the Springboks get this crucial aspect of their game wrong on Saturday then it could be a long afternoon at Ellis Park for them. Australia are likely to struggle to gain parity up front, but possess two exceptionally dangerous centres and a back line that has speed and power written all over it. As a result it’s a match where both sides’ positives cancel each other out, but we still think at home it’s South Africa’s game to lose. If South Africa’s forward pack can bludgeon Australia into submission and give their half backs no space in which to operate in, the the Springboks have enough pace of their own out wide to feed off whatever scraps may come their way. We’re concerned about the Jantjies squared combination, but feel South Africa still has enough street smarts and cohesion to get the job done by four points!
Argentina vs New Zealand – Saturday, July 20th – Buenos Aires
This is almost part 2 of the Super Rugby final, as New Zealand’s best take on Argentina’s best, this time on home soil for the South Americans. With the Pumas side looking almost identical to the Jaguares side that traveled to Christchurch earlier this month to take on the Crusaders, it’s hard to not draw the comparison. This time though the Pumas take on instead of the Crusaders, the best of the rest from New Zealand who would arguably be the dream team of most Coaches’ starting XVs.
Many are writing off the Pumas, given the Jaguares inability to put any big points on the Crusaders a fortnight ago, and a seemingly one sided game when one looked only at the scoreline. However, delve into the statistics for that match and it suddenly becomes clear that the Jaguares were keeping level on most fronts and in some cases well ahead, it was their execution at times and some poor decision making from some of their less experienced players that cost them a match played at full throttle. On home soil and with the value added of star play maker and fly half Nicolas Sanchez back in the mix, the Pumas are likely to be a much different prospect. With a rapturous crowd at the Jose Amalfitani in full voice, the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more demanding fixture in which to sharpen up those World Cup talons and maintain focus and composure in a challenging environment. Whatever the scoreline come the final whistle, we have a hunch that the adjective boring won’t feature in any post match analysis of this one.
Can Coach Mario Ledesma restore the Argentinian scrum?
As a former front rIower himself for the Pumas, Ledesma must have looked on in horror at the seemingly inexplicable weak link in an otherwise stellar Jaguares Super Rugby campaign. It looked like it was finally starting to come together by the time of the final, and seemed much improved against the Crusaders. However, given that a dominant scrum has been such a traditional staple of Argentinian rugby in the past its seeming demise this past eighteen months is of concern. If they are going to reverse that trend and stop Argentina going backwards then Saturday is potentially a golden opportunity to get some confidence back at the coalface. Apart from the legendary Dane Coles, who to be honest we fear more outside the scrum than in, New Zealand are not bringing anything to Buenos Aires that sets alarm bells ringing. If the Pumas get their structures and techniques right on Saturday they could restore some genuine pride to a battered unit, which they desperately need ahead of the World Cup.
Brodie Retallick vs the Lavanini/Petti axis – one of the weekend’s biggest attractions
The last time these three met in their Super Rugby quarter final, it was the South American duo who made the headlines, giving Retallick an exceptionally quiet afternoon by his standards. We doubt that in an All Black jersey the giant New Zealand powerhouse will be as demure, but there is no denying the spoiler alert that the Pumas pair have become especially at lineout time. After two years of disciplinary therapy Lavanini has transformed himself from masquerading as a giant red card disguised in a rugby jersey, to becoming a genuine master of the dark arts of the forward battles within the laws, albeit at the very fringes. Petti has been off the charts and in open play is one of the Pumas best opportunists. New Zealand will simply have to be at their very best here, and this contest alone should be worth the price of admission or your TV subscription.
Could these be two of the best back rows in Test rugby right now?
Even without Keiran Reid, we feel this is not an under strength All Black back row. Quite frankly we thought the Crusaders back row came off distinctly second best in their tussle with this Jaguares, now Pumas back row a fortnight ago. Consequently, New Zealand now field arguably a much more mobile back row to counter the bruising ball carrying abilities of the likes of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Javier Ortega Desio. Matera is simply off the charts and we side with the argument that he is currently the best number 6 in the world at the moment. Ardie Savea though is simply brilliant whether at 7 or 8, although we feel he has the slight edge at 7. He was an absolute monster for the Hurricanes against the Crusaders in that epic semi-final a few weeks ago. We all know what Vaea Fifita can do against Argentina, so in short this is likely to be a battle of truly epic proportions with Savea and Matera causing complete havoc at times. You won’t want to miss it.
Is it business as usual again for New Zealand with Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith?
The next three weeks will perhaps shed light on the biggest question facing New Zealand heading into the World Cup. What is New Zealand’s starting halfback combination? Is it these two or Richie Mo’unga and TJ Perenara. Either way the race is on for all four, and Saturday sees Barrett and Smith get the first opportunity to stake their claim. What is not in doubt is the quality of all four, although we’d argue that Smith has more to prove than Perenara, with Mo’unga and Barrett in a photo finish race at the moment for the starting 10 jersey. If life wasn’t challenging enough for Smith and Barrett, Saturday’s match sees the return of star fly half Nicolas Sanchez for the Pumas, alongside established scrum half Tomas Cubelli.
Ramiro Moyano vs Sevu Reece – now you see them – now you don’t!
Sevu Reece’s eagerly anticipated All Black call up comes as no surprise after his explosive exploits for the Crusaders this season. Ally him to the vision of Beauden Barrett and in space he could prove to be Argentina’s worst nightmare and Ramiro Moyano’s ultimate defensive workout. However, the Pumas winger has a sidestep and pace of his own that has seen him carve giant swathes through opposition defenses completely unhindered. On top of that the Argentinian winger tackles like a man possessed and has made twice the number of his All Black counterpart this season. All Black Coach Steve Hansen could ask for no better opportunity to put Reece under the microscope in his All Black debut.
This is no doubt for Argentinian supporters the rematch they wanted so badly with a New Zealand side, after the Jaguares failed to secure a home final in the recently concluded Super Rugby season. Expect the Jose Amalfitani Stadium to be standing room only and the noise simply deafening. As a result the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more fitting opener to their 2019 campaign which culminates with the World Cup. After all is said and done though we don’t buy into the argument that this is a second string All Black side, and if the Pumas make that mistake then it will be all over by half time. It will take an exceptionally focused and disciplined Pumas side, despite their success in Super Rugby, to get past 23 rather gifted men in black jerseys on Saturday afternoon. With so much at stake and the emotional factor of the crowd, it could all get too much for the Pumas in the heat of the moment, and we all know what any All Black side can do once they get a whiff of any kind of uncertainty in their opponents. This is an excellent Pumas team, which now has to translate their Super Rugby success to the Test Arena. Even with home advantage we feel it might still be too much of a tall order on the opening night of their season. Consequently, we have a suspicion that the All Blacks’ combined experience of winning away from home in tough environments might just get them through on Saturday, and in a very tight match, New Zealand to get the job done by five points – but brace yourself for the ride as Argentina make them work for every last inch of it!