Test Rugby is now in full swing and will remain so till the beginning of November and the final whistle of the World Cup. As a result there is plenty of action to be had this weekend. The Rugby Championship and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s unofficial warm up for Japan continues in its abbreviated format this weekend. South Africa travel to Wellington to attempt to repeat their historic win against New Zealand on the same ground a year ago. Meanwhile Argentina travel to Australia to take on the Wallabies in Brisbane and also hope to repeat their famous victory on Australian soil last year. Lastly Canada travel to Denver before heading down to the South Pacific and take on the USA for the second time this year.
Unfortunately due to the pressures of work this week, we’ve been unable to do our usual five talking points for each match, but here’s a quick summary of what we’re looking at for all three games.
New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, July 27th – Wellington
Without a doubt given the thrill of last year’s spectacle, this is THE big fixture of the weekend. South Africa are fielding an exceptionally strong squad for this encounter as are New Zealand who will be keen to seek revenge for their defeat on home soil last year by the Springboks. South Africa arrive brimming with confidence after a comprehensive thrashing of Australia last weekend, made all the more impressive without some of their key players. Admittedly Australia are not exactly setting the world on fire at the moment, but it was still an important win that saw a well disciplined and cohesive Springbok performance. New Zealand on the other hand, although not fielding their strongest side, struggled to keep Argentina at bay last weekend, and were lucky to come away with a narrow win.
This weekend sees both sides field their first choice lineups, and given the form of both teams, promises to be an exciting encounter and a mirror image of both sides’ opening match in the World Cup in two months time.
Looking at the lineups, a couple of things stand out for us most notably the appearance of the two main contenders for the All Black 10 jersey on the field together. Beauden Barrett reverts to the fullback position for this match, while Richie Mo’unga takes up his usual spot with the Crusaders and New Zealand at fly half. Barrett ultimately got the job done last weekend but we felt that Argentina often had his measure and it wasn’t his greatest day at the office. In the case of Mo’unga we have yet to see him have a bad day this year, and if he can translate this form to Test level in an intensely physical and demanding Test, then the race for the selectors first choice will be that much tighter between the two fly halves. Barrett has not played fullback at Test level for quite some time, almost six years ago to be precise against Japan, and he has only played three times in the 15 jersey for the Men in Black. There is no doubting his versatility but to shift one of your key play makers to such a relatively unfamiliar position for such a big game, will really be a testimony to Barrett’s abilities if he pulls it off with flying colors. He’ll be up against one of Test Rugby’s best in the shape of Willie le Roux and we’d argue that in the aerial contests the South African may come off better given his familiarity with the position.
TJ Perenara gets the starting scrum half berth this weekend, and deservedly so in our opinion for a match of this stature. We’d argue he is New Zealand’s form number 9 by a country mile at the moment, and his rival Aaron Smith didn’t really do anything last weekend to make us sit up and take notice, and was often outplayed by Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli. Perenara will need to be on his toes as he goes head to head with South Africa’s live wire Faf de Klerk and with try scoring debutant machine Herschel Jantjies on the bench New Zealand will really have to keep their wits about them in this part of the park.
The back row for South Africa sees the highly anticipated return of one of our favorite Springboks Kwagga Smith. For us he is the try scoring equivalent of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea who we are surprised to see sit this one out. Whenever Smith is on the field South Africa’s X-factor goes up another few notches. He may not be the whirlwind wrecking ball that Savea is, but he is one of Test Rugby’s most glorious opportunists. Add to the mix the figure of flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, whose emotions at the end of last year’s match on the same ground so effectively summed up what that victory meant to the Springboks, and South Africa will be hard to beat up front.
Our last big surprise for a game with so much riding on it was the decision by New Zealand to start Sonny Bill Williams. This surely must be the last chance saloon for the All Black centre, as in our opinion, with no disrespect to the great man we feel he is past his sell by date and brings nothing particularly dynamic to an area of the park that will be hotly contested, with South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am being an exciting prospect for the Springboks and Damian de Allende having dramatically upped his game since last year.
Lastly we feel South Africa pack an absolute power house bench. New Zealand’s offering from the sidelines is respectable make no mistake, but we feel if South Africa have the edge by the time the bench becomes a factor it could swing the game in the Springboks favor.
Either way a huge match in prospect and one you won’t want to miss. Despite their shock defeat last year, the likelihood of New Zealand losing at home twice in a row and at the same venue to boot seems on paper to be rather remote. We think South Africa is fielding a team more than capable of matching up to the All Blacks, but New Zealand will have a fairly hefty point to prove in front of a home crowd who will make sure they remember why they’re there. Consequently in a hard fought match we’re giving it to New Zealand by five, perhaps more than anything on the premise that lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice!
Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane
Last year Australia got ultimately shown the door by a better disciplined and structured Pumas side. We’d argue the Pumas are even better organised and focused than they were last year, and despite their loss last weekend will be buoyed by the fact that they made the best team in the world work for a full eighty minutes last Saturday. Australia to be honest, seemed no better than they were last season and if anything a tad worse. Their match against South Africa was riddled with schoolboy mistakes, handling errors and a general lack of cohesion and poor execution. To get past a Pumas side that is really starting to click nicely they are going to have to be a lot better, and home advantage alone is unlikely to address the error count we saw last week.
Argentina seem to have finally addressed their scrum problems, while we have seen little if any evidence that Australia have got their house in order in this department. Argentina still have plenty of work to do, but guiding proceedings at the coalface is the exceptionally capable Julian Montoya. Argentina to make some much needed progress here on Saturday, most likely at Australia’s expense, with the Wallabies misery likely to be compounded in the second row, as Argentina’s Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini show them how it’s done.
Australia’s problems are unlikely to improve in the back row, with the talking point of the week being the eagerly awaited return of Facundo Isa to the Pumas number eight jersey. Throw in the wrecking ball that is Pablo Matera who is likely to make mincemeat of the Wallabies Michael Hooper and we just can’t see Australia making any inroads here. In short, when it comes to the battles up front we have a hunch that Australia may find themselves completely outclassed.
Things get better for Australia in the backs, but even there we’d argue Argentina don’t have too much to worry about, especially given Australia’s lack of ball handling skills last weekend. The one positive we did see for Australia was the welcome return to the scrum half berth of Nic White, and in one of the very few standout Wallaby performances last weekend, White has given Will Genia a lot to think about this Saturday as he makes his bid for the first choice scrum half berth. Australia pack some very big, powerful and mobile units in their set of backs both on the wing and the center channels this weekend, and Kurtley Beale immediately made his presence known last Saturday when he came off the bench. He has also proven himself handy in the fullback position which is where he starts this week. Argentina though possess some devastating speed merchants and Saturday also sees the long overdue return of European based winger Santiago Cordero who made plenty of headlines for the Pumas at the last World Cup. With the exception of perhaps the physical aspect, it is very much a question of Argentina being able to say to Australia, “anything you can do, we can do better” in back play.
Australia may be at home, and on paper have a very good looking spreadsheet from 9-15, but up front we feel they just don’t have parity with Argentina. Add to that the fact that the Pumas are no slouchers from 9-15 themselves, and we’d argue that Argentina look much more like the finished product. With the exception of their two overseas based players this is a very settled and familiar unit, that has already proved that it can rise to the occasion. Australia may have home advantage but we feel that Argentina have a better understanding of what game they want to play. Consequently in what should be an absolutely fascinating contest we’re handing it to the Pumas by 2!
USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver
We’ll be completely honest, after two months of cheering on the Toronto Arrows close to home, we were a little disappointed to see less players from the successful MLR side than we were expecting for such a crunch match, unless Coach Kingsley Jones is saving his best for arguably one of Canada’s most challenging encounters this year – the game with Fiji. Canada is boasting some very big names for this match, most notably the incomparable winger DTH van der Merwe who is truly world-class. However, we felt that Toronto Arrows scrum half Jamie Mackenzie was certainly worth inclusion over the remarkably pedestrian Gordon McRorie.
Furthermore the fact that neither second rower Mike Sheppard or winger Dan Moor even made it to the bench left us puzzled. One thing we were delighted to see though was the return of number eight Tyler Ardron, who always brings such shape and presence to a Canadian side, while newcomer Ben LeSage gets a worthy call up to the centers.
The Americans are also open to experimentation, but having watched the last half of the MLR season with interest, there are a lot of very familiar looking and exceptionally capable American players in this starting XV. Based on what we saw this year, Canada are really going to have to work hard to contain the threat posed by second rower Nick Civetta, flanker John Quill, and number eight Cam Dolan.
After a very successful season with English Premiership side Sale Sharks, Eagles Irish import fly half AJ MacGinty returns to service for the USA, and his game management skills are going to really put Canadian newcomer and fellow Irish import Paul Nelson to the test.
Canada need a big performance on Saturday, but their away form has for quite some time now been poor. However, the one saving grace is that they did manage to run the United States close in their last encounter which was also on the road. If the likes of DTH van der Merwe can find the gaps in what would appear to be a fairly solid US defense, then Canada could come out of this on a positive note in their build up to the World Cup. However, we can’t help feeling that it’s still a tall order especially for some of the less experienced players in the squad, as well as those whose continued selection leaves us slightly puzzled. Consequently, in front of a home crowd, and with some serious talent in the mix, the USA should ultimately pull ahead and get the job done by eight points!