Archive for the ‘Rugby Championship 2015’ Category

This weekend’s penultimate round of the Rugby Championship provided us with plenty of excitement and both Australia and Argentina lived up to the promise surrounding their build up to the World Cup.  Meanwhile South Africa got an extremely rude wake up call in Durban and New Zealand are forced to regroup for their return encounter with the Wallabies this coming weekend in Auckland.  With each outing this year, Australia have been getting better and better under coach Michael Cheika and Saturday’s performance against an All Black side which albeit slightly more experimental in nature than the Wallabies, still seems to be lacking some of the lustre we have come to expect from the Men in Black over the last two years.  Despite some appalling refereeing from Frenchman Romain Poite, the Pumas put in a completely clinical performance in Durban on Saturday which put the Springboks on the back foot all night and Argentina emerged deserved winners.  It was a heady weekend of action and one which clearly showed that this year’s World Cup could well be the most openly contested in the tournament’s history.

Australia vs New Zealand
Final Score – Australia 27/New Zealand 19
Sydney

As I mentioned in last week’s preview to this match, I felt that although both sides had everything to prove, if anything it was Australia who would be feeling the pressure more than New Zealand in this match.  New Zealand have had a consistent track record of win after win in the last two years and All Black Coach Steve Hansen has been using this year’s Rugby Championship very much as an experimental vehicle to road test his possible options for the World Cup.  Australia meanwhile were desperate to build a track record after a poor run of form in the last two years, and it was critical for their confidence to prove that the two wins over South Africa and Argentina in this year’s Rugby Championship were more than just flashes in the pan.  It was important that new Coach Michael Cheika could lay the claim to rebuilding Australia as befits their status as two times World Champions.  On the basis of Saturday night’s performance in Sydney you could agree that it was mission accomplished.  New Zealand will quickly regroup for the return encounter this Saturday in Auckland and it is unlikely that Australia will be afforded many of the opportunities they were able to create in Sydney – so in short they are looking good but must be very aware that it only gets harder now with every game as they start their journey to the World Cup and complacency is just not an option.

Australia needed to win this game to say the least and coach Michael Cheika was keen to show the world that the Wallabies are coming together at just the right time.  Even though it was an abbreviated Rugby Championship this year due to the World Cup next month, a clean sweep of it by Australia would certainly set the Wallabies on a sound footing as they leave Australian shores this weekend to start their journey to the World Cup.  Australia looked full of intent from the outset, and it was clear that they had done their homework.  One of their traditional weaknesses the scrum looked exceptionally strong against New Zealand right from the get go.  Throw in a back row of  David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy and you knew Australia was not going to get pushed around on the day.  All three of these players had an outstanding game and Scott Fardy in particular must surely be considered an integral part of the Wallaby strategy for the World Cup – his work rate as always was fantastic.  Dean Mumm at lock also showed that his form against Argentina a fortnight ago was no flash in the pan, and he was superb all night especially in the lineouts and as a ball carrier.

The first half was an all-action affair that very rarely took its foot off the gas.  Despite its intensity, both defences seemed to be holding strong, with penalties being the only decider, with New Zealand just winning the contest 6-3 at half time, despite All Black flyhalf Daniel Carter having an off night with the boot.  Nevertheless Carter would manage to crack the 1500 points in Test Rugby marker on Saturday night in Sydney, but one couldn’t help feeling that the form that had got the bulk of those points somehow just wasn’t quite there as much anymore.  When Carter is on form he is still the best in the world but the consistency we have come to expect from him every time he takes to the pitch seems to be slightly lacking at the moment.

The second half if anything was even more frantic than the first if that was possible, but it really showed off the quality of this Wallaby side under Michael Cheika.  Aaron Smith, the All Blacks superlative scrum half was feeling the pressure from the Wallabies and it told as two minutes into the second half he was given a yellow card for a careless high tackle on Australian star winger Adam Ashley-Cooper.  The Wallabies used the resulting penalty to secure a lineout on the All Black 22 and once David Pocock was at the back of a rolling maul against a 14 man New Zealand defence, the danger signs were all there.  It wouldn’t be Pocock to score as he traditionally does from such Wallaby set pieces but instead prop Sekope Kepu would get his first try a few phases later as he burrowed his way through a clear hole in the All Black defence.

Ten minutes later in a reverse twist of fate it would be Australian scrum half Nick Phipps who would find himself taking his All Black’s counterpart Aaron Smith’s place in the sin bin for an offside offence.  Australia has been pushing the boundaries of the offside limits all evening and it was almost inevitable that a yellow card was coming their way.  All Black fullback Ben Smith burst his way through the Wallaby defences and found winger Nehe Milner-Skudder in acres of space on his right to easily go and score his first try for New Zealand on debut.  Carter missed the conversion but New Zealand were back out in front by 14-10.

Australia came back right away at New Zealand and their next try with just fourteen men showed the class that Australia is developing.  Matt Toomua came on as replacement flyhalf for Bernard Foley who was having another very average night with the boot for the Wallabies raising questions about his “big match” temperament.  Toomua provided a textbook chip through to the right wing for Ashley-Cooper to collect and just wrong foot New Zealand’s Ben Smith to cross the try line for Australia.  For me Adam Ashley Cooper is rediscovering the form of his career and is easily one of the best wingers in the international game right now and has been a class act for Australia throughout this year’s Rugby Championship.  His impact on the team come the World Cup should be immense.

Less than five minutes later, it was for me one of the revelations of the year, that man Nehe Milner-Skudder who would get the All Blacks out in front again.  Milner-Skudder was once more in space and managed in an incredible act of strength given his relatively small stature to roll with three Wallabies attached to him to just get the point of the ball on the try line.  Incredible stuff and for me the highlight of the match as per the video below.  If Milner-Skudder is not a shoe in now for New Zealand’s All Black squad then I would be left slightly speechless.  Carter would miss the conversion again but it was New Zealand just in front for a nail-biting finish 19-17.

Australia made wholesale changes for the last quarter, which saw Nick Phipps replaced at scrum half by Nic White, while Kurtley Beale replaced Matt Giteau at centre who had played a solid game for the Wallabies.  You could sense that Nic White had everything to prove as he competes for the number one scrum half berth for the Wallabies and the intensity and dedication to purpose was clear to see on his face from the minute he stepped onto the pitch.  I have often felt he spends too much time trying to work the referee and not the game, but in recent months he seems to have gotten this aspect of his game under control and instead focuses on his lighting speed and service at the breakdown coupled with a solid boot.  He added a vital penalty which just edged the Australians in front by 20-19.

White’s intensity and vision would turn the match for the Wallabies, as at the 70 minute mark from the base of a ruck he would dummy a pass throwing off the New Zealand defence allowing him to burst through under the posts unopposed.  A simple conversion and all Australia had to do was hang on for the last ten minutes which of late they have shown themselves more than capable of doing despite concerted and constant pressure from New Zealand.  For the remainder of the game what we saw from Australia was an excellent example of how to hold out and keep your lead against the most dangerous team in the world in the final ten minutes of a match.

There is no question that Australia deserved to win this year’s Rugby Championship on the back of three superb performances. There is little doubt that they are the most improved side in international rugby this year, and the label of dark horse for the World Cup in six weeks time is now a reality. If they manage to beat the All Blacks at home this weekend in Auckland, then you know that this team has found its mojo and England and Wales must be quaking in their boots.

South Africa vs Argentina
Final Score – South Africa 25/Argentina 37
Durban

What makes rugby such a great sport is its element to surprise and this past Saturday in Durban was a prime example.  Argentina’s superb effort  and ultimate victory over the Springboks had always been in the making since the Pumas became part of the Rugby Championship after the 2011 World Cup, but few expected such an emphatic triumph and for it to be on South African soil to boot.  This is not to belittle the side the Pumas put together to face the Springboks, as everyone expected them to be totally competitive but hardly anyone envisaged them giving the Springboks the schooling they did.  Yes in general the game was poorly refereed by Frenchman Romain Poite and Argentine winger Juan Imhoff’s third try probably should not have been awarded, but even that still doesn’t change the fact that the Pumas utterly outplayed the South Africans who often looked rudderless and bereft of ideas or even a semblance of a game plan.  Argentina by contrast were clinical in everything they did for the full eighty minutes – it was a brilliant performance and one which must surely give them enormous confidence going into the return fixture on Argentine soil with South Africa and the World Cup next month.

Although Argentina had assembled a top quality side for this fixture, there were few, myself included, who expected them to pull off a miracle against a powerhouse Springbok side and one which had run the All Blacks close to the wire a fortnight ago.  Furthermore, although many felt that it was just a question of time before the Pumas would get their first win over the Springboks, few felt that it could be achieved on South African soil.  How wrong we all were!  From the moment the Pumas stepped onto the pitch in Durban you sensed there was something special about this team.  The expressions and emotions on every one of the Argentine players faces as they lined up in front of the veterans of the first Pumas squad to tour South Africa in 1965 and sang their national anthem said it all.  They were here to prove a point – plain and simple.  The pride in the jersey was there for all to see.  As an aside one has to give credit to the South African audience who were immensely respectful during such an emotional moment for the Argentine players and which reflected the meeting of two great rugby nations.

South Africa themselves were not without their own emotions.  After two games where they had been so close to being the victors only to lose it all at the end, this last chapter of the Rugby Championship was a vital chance to show that they were still on track to be world beaters at the World Cup in six weeks time.  South Africa had to win and win by a comfortable margin, but at the end of the national anthems you knew they had their work cut out for them.

However, it was Argentina who would make all the opening statements as the game got underway.  After only three minutes, Argentine centre Marcelo Bosch was on the end of some brilliantly worked phases that ripped a slightly shambolic South African defence to pieces.  After their solid defence a fortnight ago against the All Blacks it was amazing to see the number of missed first tackles made by the Springboks as the Pumas set up Bosch’s try.

One thing was clear from the outset the Pumas highly physical style of rugby and ability to slow the ball down was being played to the fore.  Furthermore the Argentinians were using their traditional strength in the scrum to its full advantage.  The Springbok scrum was in all sorts of trouble right from the opening whistle and South African prop Vincent Koch was a having a truly torrid introduction to Test rugby.  At the end of the first quarter sustained Argentine pressure would tell once more.  The Pumas unlike the Springboks were playing with skill and purpose.  Another superb passage of play in which the Pumas spread the ball across their lines while always keeping possession put the Springbok defence on the backfoot.  Once more after some initial superb work from Pumas flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez the South African defences ended up having more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, ultimately allowing Pumas winger Juan Imhoff an easy try through the middle and just to the right of the posts.  At this stage it was blatantly clear, the Springboks seemed to lack purpose whereas the Argentinians were tackling like men possessed and running every ball that came their way.

Ten minutes later, the Argentines used their powerhouse scrum to full effect deep in the South African half.  Quick thinking was provided from their number 8, Leonardo Senatore in a spectacular offload as he broke off from the back of the scrum despite being smothered by two Springbok defenders.  From Senatore’s offload, Pumas scrum half Tomas Cubelli got the ball out wide to Juan Imhoff for a very easy try.  All of a sudden it was now 21-6 for the Argentinians and the Durban crowd and their team were clearly in a state of shock.

With five minutes before the end of the half the Springboks would show some of the quality they are capable of as from a lineout five metres out from the Pumas try line, Lood de Jager would demonstrate the same kind of skill he showed against the All Blacks to quickly dive through the Pumas defensive wall and just get the ball across the line.  South Africa were back in the match trailing 21-13.  Argentina would benefit from a penalty from the restart and then a further long-range penalty from Marcelo Bosch and the half would close out 27-13 in favour of the South Americans.  You felt that we were set for an epic second half as surely South Africa could respond to their mistakes, fix the seemingly endless errors and come back and claim a victory they so desperately needed, despite the fact that Argentina were doing everything right.

The second half opened in a cloud of controversy and detracted from what otherwise was a fantastic game of rugby.  Two minutes in and the South Africans were penalised for an offside offence in their own 22.  French referee Romain Poite instructed Springbok Captain Jean de Villiers to talk to his players about the issue of repeated offsides.  Meanwhile the field was littered with medics, two in particular attending to Pumas captain Agustin Creevy as he lay at Poite’s feet.  In a bizarre interpretation of the rules, perhaps his own, Poite called time back on and without a chance for the Springbok defences to regroup as some of them were receiving a talking to from de Villiers, Pumas flyhalf Hernandez took the quick tap and offloaded to Juan Imhoff who was completely unopposed on the wing allowing him to tap the ball down for a ridiculously simple try.  One can’t fault the Pumas for taking the initiative off the referee’s whistle and signalling of time back on, but Poite must take responsibility for poor communication with Springbok captain de Villiers and the resulting confusion amongst a distracted South African defence.  It was a prime example of the poor refereeing which at times is plaguing today’s game and which rugby’s governing body World Rugby appears to be doing very little to address.  These kind of inconsistencies are not fair to players and leave spectators especially those new to the game scratching their head as to what it is going on – not a good advertisement for the global game!

There is no question that this last questionable try was detrimental to an already very demoralised South African side.  Even if it had not been awarded South Africa would still have lost the game, but their attempt at a comeback might have been slightly less half-hearted.  Still such poor examples of refeering will sadly continue and teams wanting to compete at this level simply have to learn to put them behind them.  South Africa and Willie le Roux at the 50 minute mark showed the class we know they are capable of and regained some pride as the fullback was solid under an Argentinian high ball.  Some superb interplay then took place between Jean de Villiers and Jesse Kriel on the right wing, who eventually was able to link back with le Roux and the fullback sprinted off as he suddenly found acres of space in front of him in a rare defensive lapse by the Pumas.  It was a brilliant try and showed the form that le Roux is capable of, furthermore all of a sudden there was a sense that the Springboks were going to claw their way back into the match as South Africa now trailed 34-20 to Argentina.

However, the errors would continue to come thick and fast for South Africa forced in part by a truly epic Argentinian defence.  The Pumas would hold their ground and even get the next score through a successful drop kick from Marcelo Bosch who was having a superb game.  With fifteen minutes left to go and the Springboks trailing 37-20, the writing was clearly on the wall – Argentina were on their way to causing the biggest upset of the year so far.  The substitutions came thick and fast for South Africa at this point but they smacked more of desperation and respite for a shattered and exhausted Springbok side than an opportunity to turn the game around.  At the 75 minute mark, the Springboks were the victim of another bizarre refereeing decision from Romain Poite as Cobus Reinaach the Springbok scrum half was denied a try, as he was deemed to have not taken the ball from where Poite called the mark on a penalty offence from the Pumas.  The replay clearly shows that Reinaach is where the penalty infringement took place but is ahead of the referee who has moved a few metres back to call the mark.  Once again it is this kind of inconsistency in refereeing that simply HAS to be stamped out by the time the World Cup gets underway in six weeks time!

In the dying minutes of the game, Willie le Roux would make a spectacular offload to Bryan Habana five metres out from the line and a consolation try would be some reward for the concerted pressure that the Springboks seemed able to produce in the last five minutes of the game.  The final whistle blew and you couldn’t help but share the elation in the Pumas team as they celebrated an historic victory in Argentina’s proud rugby history.

There had been moments of controversy in the match of that there is no doubt but overall you couldn’t deny that ultimately the Pumas were the better side.  They had a clear sense of purpose, were able to dominate the Springboks in the set pieces and the organisation of their defence as always was rock solid – the same simply cannot be said of the Springboks.  The Springboks can never be accused of wanting to lose a game, but they simply didn’t have the all out desire and motivation to win that was so evident in the way the Pumas approached the match.  Argentina will take enormous confidence from this match as they prepare to play South Africa in Buenos Aires this Saturday. The Springboks will need to regroup, but travelling to Argentina after losing four Tests in a row since the last game of their season last year in Wales and playing a side that has just taught them a very painful lesson will be an exceptionally difficult challenge. There is no question that there is the foundation of a solid Springbok team in the making – but there are increasing doubts about whether or not it can be brought together in time for the World Cup. On the basis of this year’s evidence and this match it is hard to find a positive answer. We saw the Springboks self-destruct in Durban while Argentina rose to lofty new heights. I think it’s safe to say that all the bets are on for Argentina to make it two for two this year against South Africa next Saturday in Buenos Aires!

The Rugby Championship wraps up this weekend, and Australia and New Zealand will do battle in Sydney to decide who gets to keep the silverware this year.  Meanwhile in Durban, South Africa find themselves having to tough it out with Argentina for third place.  This year’s abbreviated tournament due to the World Cup looming on the horizon come September has provided plenty of thrills and spills and the decider in Sydney this Saturday should be no exception. Although South Africa are out of the running for this year’s Rugby Championship, a strong showing and emphatic win against Argentina are key to ensuring they get on the right footing to build for the World Cup with a side that is so close to being serious contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy.

Fixtures this weekend

Australia vs New Zealand
Saturday, August 8th
Sydney

Even though these two sides have another meeting the following weekend in New Zealand to decide this year’s Bledisloe Cup, this match especially for Australia is of enormous significance and is being eagerly anticipated by both sets of supporters.  Both Australia and New Zealand come into the game undefeated in this year’s tournament and clinching the title for either side will be a massive confidence booster going into the World Cup.  Australia finally seems to be returning to form after a year in the wilderness and the side seems to be settling well as Coach Michael Cheika focuses on the type of game and team he wants for the World Cup.  New Zealand although lacking some of their customary sparkle this year in the tournament have been devastatingly effective in closing out the big games in the last quarter while at the same time giving exciting new talent a shot at top-level Test competition.  All the signs are pointing to a thrilling contest in Sydney on Saturday night.

New Zealand have been consistent for the last two years, so in many ways the expectations and pressures on them going into this match are not as high as they are for Australia.  After a poor year last year, the Wallabies finally seem to be hitting all the right gears and are determined to prove that a narrow win against South Africa and the dismantling of a poor Pumas side in this year’s competition were platforms to build on for the World Cup.  Of the two teams Australia has the most to prove on Saturday night.  A loss for the All Blacks would be a setback but they know they have the luxury of facing the Wallabies again at home a week later to set the record straight.  Whereas for the Wallabies this is the last time a home crowd will see them in action before they head off to the World Cup and thus a statement needs to be made!

For such a crucial match for Australia, I was slightly surprised to see Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell in the starting lineup rather than on the bench, however their possible replacements in the shape of Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale, both of whom have shown some superb form this year, should settle the nerves of Australian supporters.  Mitchell and Giteau are sound players but neither have had that much game time with the Wallabies over the last two years.  However, the rest of the Australian starting XV is about as solid as you could ask for.  Coach Michael Cheika is clearly expecting a battle of attrition up front and the bench reflects this accordingly, as well as the Wallabies fielding a set of forwards who should be able to mix it with the best New Zealand can throw at them.  The talking point of the week has been the choice of David Pocock at number eight instead of his customary position of flanker, while Michael Hooper gets to keep his 7 jersey.  Pocock is so devastating in the loose and at the breakdown one could almost argue it doesn’t matter where you play him, whereas Michael Hooper seems to relish the role of trying to wind up his opposite number Richie McCaw.  The battle between two of rugby’s most contentious players is always one to look forward to, though McCaw’s class and skill at the very edge of the laws often gets the better of the slightly more hotheaded Michael Hooper.  I expect to see Scott Fardy, who I have always felt to be one of Australia’s most underrated players, really step up on Saturday night and possibly even edge out his opposite number Jerome Kaino.

Australia will be counting on Bernard Foley to find his rhythm with the boot this match after he struggled at times with the kicking duties against Argentina a fortnight ago, and the fact that he has to try to match Daniel Carter in this department is only going to add even more pressure.  Australia’s Nick Phipps for me has been one of the standout scrum halves of the last year but even he will have his work cut out for him as he goes up against the world’s best scrum half in the shape of New Zealand’s Aaron Smith.  Australia will be looking to the figure of Adam Ashley-Cooper to provide composure in the back line as the veteran of more than 100 Tests for Australia should, as he has done all year, provide another epic performance for the Wallabies.  Israel Folau at fullback for Australia will have every last ounce of his defensive abilities tested, which have sometimes been found lacking, as he goes up against New Zealand’s Ben Smith.  There is no question that Folau is brilliant but in terms of tactics and intelligence in the fullback position for me Ben Smith is the much more complete player.

Up front in the scrum, Australia looks evenly matched with New Zealand with the Wallaby scrum holding its own in recent outings.  Lastly the contest between the locks should be fascinating as Dean Mumm tests his mettle against the might of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick.  Mumm looked good against Argentina a fortnight ago, even though he benefitted from a try off a forward pass, but Argentina were uncharacteristically weak in defence and he was given lots of space to work with which you can be assured that Brodie Retallick will shut down in a heartbeat.

As for New Zealand, the big news for this match is getting to see Nehe Milner-Skudder get his Test debut for the All Blacks on the right wing.  For me he was unquestionably one of the most exciting players of this year’s Super Rugby competition and it was only a question of when and not if he would get his first All Black call up.  Up against probably one of the most experienced and prolific try scorers in International Test Rugby, Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper, this will be a baptism of fire.  However, I personally feel that Milner-Skudder will relish the challenge and I think we will see plenty of sparks flying once this speedster finds some space and gets to use his almost surreal side-stepping skill.  Furthermore, although he is not the biggest player on the park his strength is deceptive and he has been seen to shrug off up to five defenders.  To say that any true rugby fan is looking forward to seeing Milner-Skudder in action on Saturday night is probably one of the understatements of the year – let’s hope he rises to the occasion and doesn’t disappoint.

Lastly for New Zealand, I will be interested to see how the combination of Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith work together as the centre pairing.  For me there is absolutely no question regarding the class and quality of Conrad Smith as an International Test player, but the jury is still out on all the hype surrounding Sonny Bill Williams.  I have seen hints of what he can do, but under this kind of intense pressure I agree that he is very easy for many teams to read and thus contain and as a result doesn’t really bring the quality of attack that Ma’a Nonu brings.  While Nonu is not available for this match, it will be interesting to see if the question marks surrounding Sonny Bill Williams get removed in this game as he goes up against his opposite number Matt Giteau who is also facing many of the same questions for the Wallabies.

In short, an epic contest awaits with a fascinating blend of youth and experience.  Either way it should be a classic between the two trans-Tasman rivals.  Given that I feel the pressure to win is greater for the Wallabies, I am just going to give them this match by a mere two points, with the caveat that they have to contain the All Blacks at all costs in the final five minutes of the match.  Let’s face it, Quade Cooper will not be coming off the bench at such a critical time for Australia in this match so their chances to pull this off are good provided they can hold their nerve and discipline!

South Africa vs Argentina
Saturday, August 8th
Durban

As Argentina field their strongest team of the tournament, South Africa must surely be feeling just a tad nervous. The Pumas have become the Springboks “problem” team in the last two years, as South Africa struggled to get past the Pumas in both of their encounters last year, with a narrow last gasp win in their second match in Mendoza. However, a year is a long time in international rugby. This is a very different looking Springbok side this year. They may be winless in this tournament so far, as are the Pumas, but they have put in some very big performances and have dominated both Australia and New Zealand for long periods of time to then only fall apart in the last quarter. In front of a home crowd and up against a strong but nevertheless slightly experimental Pumas side, you get the feeling that Saturday should end up being all about a comprehensive Springbok victory. If it isn’t then their trip to Buenos Aires a week later will be fraught with anxiety!

It is clear that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has all of this very much in the forefront of his mind and is very conscious of the fact that a third straight loss and at home to boot, would be completely unacceptable to a South African public desperate for results. As a result there is very little experimentation going on in the starting lineup for Saturday. However, there are question marks going into this match. Firstly, despite his remarkable return from a horrific injury, will Captain and centre Jean de Villiers in his first real outing be able to stand up to the physical punishment that a Pumas side always dishes out? We all want to wish de Villiers the best, and as one of the ambassadors of our great game, sincerely hope that he emerges from this unscathed.  Furthermore will it prove his fitness for the Springboks World Cup campaign as his leadership will be so critical to the squad? As a result of de Villiers return, Meyer has had to split up one of the most exciting centerfield pairings in International Rugby right now – Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. Consequently, Kriel finds himself on the wing in the back line with fullback Willie le Roux. I can understand the need for Meyer to do this, especially as Kriel has shown he has great versatility and is a possible understudy for le Roux should he be an injury concern for the World Cup. The fullback position for South Africa going into the World Cup is a serious concern. Willie le Roux is amongst the best in the world right now after a dip in form last year, but should he be lost to injury South Africa has very little depth in this position other than Kriel.

However, from positions 1-8, this is a total powerhouse Springbok team, and one which Argentina will have to dig very deep to contain. Schalk Burger maintains the number eight position at which he was so effective against New Zealand a fortnight ago, and without the added burden of the captaincy expect to see him at his blitzkrieg best. Marcel Coetzee returns to the number 7 jersey alongside Heinrich Brüssow who made such a spectacular return to Test rugby a fortnight ago against New Zealand. Expect Brüssow with Coetzee alongside him to be even better than he was against New Zealand.  I have always said that Brüssow  is one of South Africa’s best and was amazed that we have seen so little of him in the last four years. Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth had a barnstormer of a game against New Zealand and should help South Africa dominate the lineouts. Lastly, Meyer has chosen a solid scrum that boasts the youth of Vincent Koch and the experience of Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira. Du Plessis has been immense for the Springboks in both Rugby Championship outings and his ability to get turnover ball often singlehandedly has been the envy of any forward pack.

For Argentina, as mentioned above, they are probably fielding their best team of the year so far, and obviously feel that their two games against South Africa are the ones they are really targeting in their buildup to the World Cup. While I still think there is a much more experimental feel to this Pumas side than their Springbok counterparts, it is nevertheless an impressive and competitive unit. The most significant decision has been the exclusion of regular Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez. To be honest Sanchez has had a shocker of a tournament so far, further weakened by his amateur dramatics acting skills as evidenced against Australia, leading many Argentine supporters to suggest he switch to a career in football. Instead we see the vastly experienced Juan Martin Hernandez come into the squad at flyhalf. Despite his record of injuries, Hernandez brings a sense of composure and vision to the position along the lines of the great Felipe Contepomi.

The rest of the Pumas squad is quality through and through, especially the back line, though many were surprised to not see the inclusion of Santiago Cordero and Gonzalo Camacho as these two provided some of the best individual plays of the clash against Australia and it would have been interesting to see how they played in a side that is actually working as an organised unit. Meanwhile the forwards see further experimentation with different combinations and the return of the always impressive Leonardo Senatore at eight and Pablo Matera at flanker. As impressive as Agustin Creevy and Marcos Ayerza are, I can’t help feeling that the Springboks will have the edge in the scrum while de Jager and Etzebeth should easily win the battle of the locks for South Africa.

In short the Pumas should be competitive provided the Durban humidity doesn’t get to them, but this really is the Springboks game to win and one which they really need to win comfortably in order to be able to go to Argentina the following week and face a full strength first choice Pumas side at home. For South Africa now, with the Rugby Championship a chance gone begging, the focus must be on building for the World Cup with a squad that is just agonizingly short of greatness. Find the finishing prowess that the All Blacks have shown the world with such devastating effect for the last two years, and this Springbok side are without doubt world beaters!

A Springbok/All Black encounter at Ellis Park always showcases one of rugby’s greatest rivalries and this past Saturday was no exception. South Africa sadly came short against an All Black side which at times didn’t quite have its customary sparkle, but nevertheless when it matters New Zealand still are second to none in closing out big games. For South Africa however, there were plenty of positives and much to be excited about going into the World Cup, especially as it would appear they have the most exciting centerfield pairing in international rugby right now in the form of Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel.

South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – South Africa 20/New Zealand 27
Johannesburg

We were promised a classic and that’s exactly what we got! What’s more promising for South African supporters is that there seemed to be a concerted effort to fix many of the problems we have seen in the last year, in particular hanging onto the ball instead of kicking away perfectly good possession. South Africa took the game to New Zealand for much of the match and were by far the dominant side till the last quarter. From there however, the edge seemed to be taken off the Springboks momentum with the bench making little if any impact while New Zealand as they always do when their backs are against the wall dug deep and found another gear. The rest was history sadly at South Africa’s expense. Nevertheless, instead of highlighting the negatives of the South African performance as so many seem to do these days, let’s look at the positives of which there were plenty.

South Africa started this match full of intent as a packed Ellis Park welcomed the home side onto the field. Although it took the Springboks the first five minutes to settle gifting a successful penalty kick to New Zealand’s Lima Sopoaga on his Test debut at flyhalf, they soon hit their stride and at the 10 minute mark, it was Bismarck du Plessis showing the same form as he did last week who got the Boks going. Du Plessis brought down New Zealand’s Kieran Read as he took a pass from Ben Smith and brilliantly stole the ball. From there the Boks spread the ball wide as it found its way to Jesse Kriel who put fullback Willie le Roux into space allowing him to weave through the New Zealand defences and get South Africa’s first try. It was a superb passage of play from South Africa and showed just what they can do when they hang onto the ball as well as Willie le Roux returning to some of his best form. It was great to see the seamless interplay between backs and forwards and if they can play like that come the World Cup, then there is no question they will be serious contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy.

For the next ten minutes South Africa dominated the All Blacks. Every player on the field was putting in a huge effort. Flanker Heinrich Brüssow on his first return to Test rugby in almost four years was having a barnstormer of a game and you couldn’t help wondering why we haven’t seen him in a Bok jersey sooner. De Allende and Kriel were proving that they were just as dangerous in defence as they were on attack, while fullback Willie Le Roux seemed to find the form that had been eluding him since last year.  Schalk Burger at number 8 and Captain was proving inspirational in a leadership role along with his seemingly endless energy and commitment.  Francois Louw was providing plenty of solid work and support to Heinrich Brüssow in the back row.  Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager were doing exceptional work in the loose and in the lineout.  The Beast and the Du Plessis brothers in the front row were providing more than a match for their All Black counterparts and Bismarck Du Plessis was a constant source of turnover ball just as he had been in Australia the week before.

Handre Pollard seemed to still be having a hit and miss game with the boot at times but no one can fault him on his willingness to take the ball into contact and on numerous occasions he courageously chose this option instead of suspect kicking to a powerhouse All Black back line who have proven time and again that they are masters of the counter attack.

New Zealand were to strike back just before half time as Lima Sopoaga, who was having a stellar day out on his debut appearance in the black jersey, made a sniping run up the inside channel beating several defenders to then find his Highlanders teammate Ben Smith on the right wing and the rest was history, with New Zealand going into the break with scores level at 10-10.

South Africa started the second half with just as much intensity as the first, but unfortunately injuries saw Jannie Du Plessis remain on the bench to give Vincent Koch his Test debut at prop for the Springboks.  Meanwhile Francois Louw left the field after only a few minutes.  However, Jesse Kriel was to show off his skills once more, after taking a brilliant offload under pressure from flyhalf Pollard to then power his way past the All Black defence and cross the line once more for South Africa.  South Africa were on fire and were playing the kind of game that we just haven’t seen from them in their last few outings.  New Zealand while intensely competitive were not as awe inspiring as we have come to expect from them.  While matching the Springboks they didn’t quite have the speed and imagination on attack that the Springboks were displaying.

However, just when you think New Zealand are running out of ideas they prove why they are the masters of the comeback.  Literally a minute after Kriel’s superb effort for South Africa, All Black hooker Dane Coles found himself in space and then put in a burst of speed and defender dodging worthy of some of the world’s best centres, to once more get New Zealand right back in the game.  Sopoaga found the mark with his conversion and the scores were level at 17-17.

The rest of the game proved to be a war of attrition with New Zealand quietly starting to get the edge.  With South Africa just in front by 20-17 the game entered its most dangerous period whenever the All Blacks are up against the wall – the last five minutes.  New Zealand took a quick lineout with a set move that completely caught the Springboks napping as Richie McCaw scooped the ball and burst through and over the Springbok line.  Sopoaga converted once more and then with a minute to go, made a successful penalty kick resulting from sustained All Black pressure in the Springbok 22.  Suddenly what had looked so promising for South Africa ended in yet another heartbreaking last minute defeat.  South Africa had played a superb game of rugby for 70 minutes but their consistent problem of losing their edge in that vital last ten minutes once more got the better of them.

The All Blacks continue to look like the team to beat but don’t necessarily look as all conquering as they have been up till now.  They are still masters of closing out games especially when the odds are against them, but certainly lacked some lustre in getting the job done in this match.  Still an outstanding debut for fly half Lima Sopoaga once more showed just how much depth New Zealand has available to them going into a World Cup.  South Africa however, although the losers in a fantastic match can take great heart from this performance.  Springbok Coach Heyneke Meyer has more than just the nucleus of a strong World Cup squad as evidenced by this game.  The forward pack is starting to gel really nicely and beginning to look like a world beater from 1-8.  While some questions still remain around what the ultimate Springbok halfback pairing may actually look like, there is plenty of promise.  The centrefield pairing of De Allende and Kriel is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and it was fantastic to see fullback Willie le Roux return to his world class form.  The only real remaining question for the Springboks is what happens on the wings, but once again there is some exciting prospects to work with – especially with Cornal Hendricks answering many of his critics by his defensive performance in this match and we all know the speed he has available to him.  There is no question that South Africa and New Zealand are the two best teams in the world right now, and England and Ireland still have plenty of work to do if they really want to stand alongside them as equals come September/October.

A great opening weekend sees the All Blacks show us just what they are capable of against a spirited Argentinian side.  There was never really any doubt that New Zealand would ultimately come out on top against a slightly under strength Pumas team.  However, the Pumas made New Zealand work hard for the full eighty minutes and at times their defence was quite extraordinary.  Pumas Captain Agustin Creevy once again showed what a source of inspiration he is to his team as he scored not only his first Test try for his country but then went on to score another one in rapid succession.  However, New Zealand showed the depth and class it has going into this World Cup with Waisake Naholo on the wing showing us just what he is capable of to then tragically be taken off due to injury and likely now miss the global showdown in September/October.  Nevertheless, key All Black players such as Kieran Read and Israel Dagg made a promising return to form and in the end New Zealand comfortably pulled away from the Pumas despite a close and well fought first half.  Once they find their rhythm as they did in the second half, these All Blacks are looking pretty hard to beat!  Meanwhile, South Africa as predicted dominated the opening rounds of their encounter with Australia in Brisbane, only to lose a match they should have won.  Australia made exceptionally good use of their bench and substitutions while the same cannot be said of South Africa.  Australia effectively owned the last quarter of the game and bold and courageous decision-making by Captain Stephen Moore in the dying seconds of the game saw the Wallabies come out on top.

New Zealand vs Argentina
Final Score – New Zealand 39/Argentina 18
Christchurch

As most predicted this ended up being a comfortable win in the end for New Zealand. The Pumas put up a brave fight and at times their defence was outstanding, however without their full strength side it was always going to be hard for them to get one over on the All Blacks especially at home. Even Argentina’s world-beating scrum was often pushed around the park by New Zealand. In the end New Zealand emerged comfortable winners while seeing a return to form of Kieran Read at 8 and Israel Dagg at fullback.

Although Argentina were often impressive in defence, they had to be as New Zealand maintained a constant assault on Argentinian lines for the full eighty minutes.  New Zealand got the first points on the board through a penalty, and then New Zealand’s workhorse par excellence Richie McCaw got them their first try through some of his characteristically hard work at the breakdown.  Argentina were impressive in denying New Zealand much attacking ball in the first quarter but the constant pressure from New Zealand was starting to tell.  Argentine fly half Nicolas Sanchez was having a shocker of a game with the boot and this was seriously hampering Argentina’s efforts in both defence and attack.  However, Dan Carter for New Zealand was having difficulty finding his mark on penalty kicks and conversions which managed to keep Argentina in touch despite the New Zealand attack growing in confidence.

As good as Argentina often were at the breakdown, the end of the first half saw New Zealand make their statement of intent as to how they were to conduct proceedings in the second half.  Centre Ma’a Nonu showed as he did all season for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby, his speed and sheer strength as he worked some space on the outside, fended off two strong tackles from the Pumas and crashed across the Argentine line for the All Blacks second try.  Dan Carter got his kicking range back and converted as New Zealand ended the first half with a comfortable 18-6 lead.

The second half opened with New Zealand showing lots of intent, with winger Charles Piutau scoring after some solid sustained pressure from the All Blacks in the Argentine 22.  Next up All Black 8 Kieran Read roared back to his devastating form after a remarkably quiet Super Rugby season.  He has always been such a powerhouse for New Zealand and if he continues to play as he did against the Pumas last Friday then he will once more be a significant threat come the World Cup!  After Argentina lost the ball during a period of scrambled defence, Read was quick to pounce on the loose ball and in he went under the posts offering Dan Carter an easy conversion.  New Zealand was in a comfortable lead with 30 minutes left to go at 32-6.

However, never write the Pumas off, and the next ten minutes arguably saw the best passage of play from the Argentinians led by the inspirational figure of their Captain Augustin Creevy as he not only scored his first  Test try but also got another one five minutes later for good measure.  Taking a leaf out of the Wallabies playbook and securing a good drive from the lineout the Pumas Captain scored two solid tries through rolling mauls.  All of sudden as the game entered the last 20 minutes it was 32-18 and although still with a mountain to climb the Pumas seemed to be back in the match.

In the end as we have seen so often in the last two years, the All Blacks simply refocused and masterfully closed out the game and even allowed All Black debutant scrum half Codie Taylor to cap off his first outing in the black jersey with a try.  New Zealand essentially took up permanent residence in the Argentinian 22 and applied constant pressure to a tiring Puma defence.  After a series of exhausting scrums Taylor was able to burrow his way through across the Pumas line, Carter once again converted and that was it – 39-18.

In the end Argentina were dominated by New Zealand, but the two tries from Creevy and their resolute defence at times are all things the South Americans can take heart from as this relatively new looking Pumas side returns to full strength in Argentina for the match against Australia this weekend.  New Zealand on the other hand showed that they are building nicely for the World Cup and the hiccoughs we saw against Samoa earlier this month were simply nothing more than that.  This weekend’s match up in the cauldron of Ellis Park in Johannesburg against a wounded Springbok outfit with everything to prove to their fanatical fans will be an infinitely harder test. Nevertheless, even allowing for injuries, there is so much talent and depth in the New Zealand squad at the moment that they are still the standard bearers for the world game going into this year’s global showdown and are going to be extremely difficult to beat.

Australia vs South Africa
Final Score – Australia 24/South Africa 20
Brisbane

Just like last year’s fixture this game was decided in the last ten minutes and for some on a controversial decision.  However, for me I can’t help feeling that the TMO did make the right call on Tevita Kuridrani’s last gasp try.  It was a tense and exciting contest, but ultimately as I predicted the Australians really put the pressure on in the last twenty minutes and through effective use of their bench started to get the edge on their South African counterparts.  South Africa started the game well, but as the game wore on all the hallmark weaknesses of the current Springbok strategy came to the fore – a gradual breakdown in discipline and a pointless kicking game compounded by some bizarre substitution decisions from coach Heyneke Meyer.  Just like last year the Springboks boarded the plane back to South Africa wondering how they managed to lose a game they should have won.

Flyhalf Handre Pollard got the game off to a shaky start for South Africa, but was saved by some superb work from Hooker Bismarck du Plessis in the loose.  Du Plessis was immense all night and his work at the breakdown in constantly getting South Africa turnover ball was outstanding, making coach Heyneke Meyer’s decision to take him off the field at the 50 minute mark all the more bizarre, especially as at that point Australia were beginning to build some momentum and confidence.  In general, Pollard had a woeful game with the boot, but his saving grace was his performance with ball in hand and his willingness to never shirk from taking the ball into contact.  Even Bismarck du Plessis’ much maligned brother of late, Jannie, found salvation in his performance in this match.  Apart from the odd error, the centerfield pairing of Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende worked extremely well together and surely must be giving Springbok supporters grounds for optimism heading into the World Cup given the uncertainty surrounding Jean de Villiers, with Kriel scoring a try on his debut.  De Allende’s bullish strength at centre was a good counterfoil to the same qualities shown by Kuridrani for the Wallabies.  Despite a truly pointless kicking game for the most part from South African fullback Willie le Roux he did show some serious skill when he chose to run the ball and set up opportunities for his teammates, while in defence he made several last gasp try saving tackles.

Australia started slowly, but as I predicted they made superb use of the bench unlike South Africa, and in the last quarter really turned all the pressure on South Africa.  Israel Folau was superb under the continuous high ball that South Africa kept providing him with, but South Africa were so keen to kick the ball to him it was inevitable that the Australian fullback was going to get plenty of limelight.  In South Africa’s defence however, once Folau did have the ball he was for the most part very quickly contained by at least two Springboks and very rarely got much of a chance to run beyond the halfway line.  Although dominated early on the Australian forwards were eventually able to hold up to their South African counterparts and once Pocock came on the field he and Hooper were devastating in the loose with the latter scoring a critical try with six minutes to go.  As always for me, Scott Fardy had a solid game and he continues to impress me as one of the Wallabies most reliable components of their forward play.  The Quade Cooper/Will Genia halfback partnership was singularly unimpressive as far as I was concerned and I cannot really see with the halfback pairings Australia has at its disposal how these two add any value for the Wallabies especially in such tight games as these.  The difference that Nick Phipps made the minute he came on for Genia was instant and there for all to see.  Phipps’ ferocious intensity and tenacity at the breakdown coupled with his quick and accurate delivery to the rest of his pack, make him a no brainer starting choice and I was pleased to see this has been reflected in Wallaby coach Cheika’s starting lineup for the match against Argentina this weekend.  Lastly it was good to see centre Tevita Kuridrani return to his barnstorming best after a quiet Super Rugby season and Adam Ashley-Cooper on the wing continued to show that he is probably having one of the best ever years of his illustrious playing career.

The game was a tense and close affair for the first half hour, with Handre Pollard having a very hit and miss kicking game, but the South Africans nevertheless were getting the better of the pressure game leading 6-0.  The last ten minutes however were a mirror of the rest of the game.  Adam Ashley-Cooper for Australia was the beneficiary of some solid work from centre Matt Giteau, and Quade Cooper in a rare moment of brilliance was able to feed Ashley-Cooper a superb inside pass to put the Australian centre in space and across the South African white line.  The Springboks were to recover their composure quickly though, and Willie le Roux showed just how dangerous he is when he hangs onto the ball as he forced three Australian defenders to focus on him as he made a superb offload to a charging Eben Etzebeth on the outside metres from the try line.  Etzebeth’s giant form once it has built up a significant head of steam is almost impossible to stop and the big forward crashed over in the corner for his first Test try.

South Africa then proceeded to start the second half full of the same intent with which they had ended the first.  After an excellent offload from Springbok winger Bryan Habana, Jesse Kriel at centre and on his Test debut, weaved his way through three Australian defenders to score a try that he will cherish for many years to come and one which will surely give him enormous confidence going into the rest of the tournament and the World Cup.  From then on however it was all going to head south for the Springboks.  At the 50 minute mark despite the dominance South Africa had up front over the Australians both in the loose and at scrum time, primarily through the work of hooker Bismarck du Plessis, coach Heyneke Meyer for some bizarre reason decided to pull du Plessis from the field and replace him with Adriaan Strauss who simply couldn’t keep the momentum that du Plessis had gained for the Springboks.  From there the match started to unravel for the Springboks, their confidence seemed to evaporate, the error count rose and their discipline started to break down.

Australia however, for the last thirty minutes were the exact opposite.  The arrival of Nick Phipps at scrum half was injecting some much-needed intensity into the Australian game and they were gradually starting to swing the pressure game in their favour.  Then just like last year in Perth the Wallabies produced a clinical performance for the last ten minutes which completely stole the game from a dumbfounded Springbok side.  At the 73 minute mark, it was that man Michael Hooper at number 7 who benefitted from the in your face work of Nick Phipps at the breakdown inches from the South African white line and the flanker crashed across to put the Wallabies right back in the hunt.  Then at the death Wallaby captain Stephen Moore made the brave decision to go for the win instead of the draw and the ball was kicked into touch for a Wallaby lineout after the Springboks gave away another penalty.  It was a courageous decision and a refreshing one, if it had gone wrong Moore would have been lynched in the Australian press the next day, but his faith and confidence in his teammates to get the job done was exemplary.  He knew Australia needed to win this opening Test of the year with a World Cup only weeks away and a draw would simply not be good enough – he obviously had recognised that the self-belief shown by the Highlanders in this year’s Super Rugby championship is still a highly valuable commodity in the international game.  It paid off and Australia were able to keep the pressure on from the lineout, with centre Tevita Kuridrani showing just how strong he is by battering his way through the South African defence to just, and it really was a question of just, get the tip of the ball on the white line.

The look on the Springboks faces at the final whistle said it all and was a mirror image of this same fixture last year in Perth – “how did we lose a game that we essentially had sown up”?  Australia were the deserved winners in the end, as they built their game slowly but effectively over the eighty minutes, whereas South Africa due to poor coaching decisions and a breakdown in execution watched their game deteriorate as the game progressed.  Facing a test of epic proportions against an All Black side that is at the top of its game this Saturday in Johannesburg, the Springboks have it all to prove in front of an expectant and critical home crowd – talk about pressure!  Meanwhile Australia face a challenging trip to Argentina where they hope to redress the misfortunes of their last trip to South America – on the basis of this performance they certainly will have a lot to work with to pull it off and must surely fancy their chances!

Fixtures this weekend

South Africa vs New Zealand
Saturday, July 25th
Johannesburg

Despite all the talk of experimental sides and building for the World Cup this game quite simply is going to be MASSIVE! This is a game the Springboks just have to win.  Experimentation aside the South African public will simply not accept a loss against their greatest rivals in the rugby cathedral of Ellis Park.  Meanwhile, New Zealand may be experimenting but either way you look at it, this is an exceptionally strong All Black side.  There has been much talk this week in the press of the decision by All Black coach Steve Hansen choosing to start Lima Sopoaga in his Test debut at fly half against such a venerable opponent.  But take a moment to reflect here, who is Sopoaga playing alongside?  The world’s best scrum half, New Zealand’s Aaron Smith, will be alongside Sopoaga every step of the way just as he was throughout the Highlanders’ highly successful Super Rugby campaign.  Throw in that incredible element of self-belief that these two used to back themselves and their teammates in the Highlanders’ campaign and I can’t help feeling that Steve Hansen is onto something here in this selection.

South Africa despite the many criticisms levelled at them last weekend in their performance against Australia which resulted in a loss, I still feel they played a solid first fifty minutes of rugby and one which clearly gave them ascendancy over the Wallabies.  They threw the game particularly in the last 20 minutes and I feel that a large part of the blame for that lies with the coaching staff and not necessarily the players.  Poor substitution choices and an insistence on wayward and pointless kicking were the Springboks Achilles heel in the last twenty minutes of the game.  Add to that a breakdown in discipline as their frustration grew and the rest was history.  So for this week what can we expect?  Lots of question marks around selections leaving many Springbok supporters feeling both excited and nervous at the same time.  In the forwards the big question mark is the selection of Heinrich Brüssow at number 6.  When Brüssow burst onto the Springbok stage several years ago, I must confess to being one of his biggest fans and was at a loss to explain his disappearance in the last four years.  But here is the question.  We know what he can do but when have we last seen what he can do – and thus can a player left out in the cold for so long really make a comeback on such a massive stage?  I am going to stick my hand up and say yes which I must confess is a rare call on my part as I very rarely rate players on reputation and usually base my calls on current form only.  So I am willing to break with my better judgement and say that I am very excited to see Brüssow back in a Springbok jersey and will be cheering him on to make a huge and telling impact for South Africa on Saturday – while at the same time empathizing with the enormous pressure he must feel under to perform.

Meanwhile, Lood de Jager gets a starting berth in place of the injured Victor Matfield in the second row and I can’t help feeling this is a good decision.  De Jager for the most part impressed me last weekend against Australia and South Africa does need some youth in this position to develop for the future.  The rest of the forward pack is as solid as they come and I can only hope that Bismarck du Plessis shows once more the truly outstanding form he showed last weekend and that coach Heineke Meyer leaves him on the field to provide inspiration to his teammates in such a crucial game.  Schalk Burger’s maturity these days will serve him well in the Captain’s role and along with Du Plessis on the field these two should provide the motivation and inspiration that will be so important for the team on Saturday.  Handre Pollard and Ruan Pienaar will have to up their performances from last weekend, and Pollard will have to make sure his willingness to take the ball into contact is backed up by a structured and effective kicking game.  If anything, given New Zealand’s back line, kicking should be kept to a minimum on Saturday!  South Africa’s back line looks solid and once again I am really looking forward to seeing the centerfield pairing of De Allende and Kriel in action again as well as hopefully Le Roux regaining some much-needed form at fullback.

For New Zealand, as mentioned above, contrary to the debate around the selection of Sopoaga, I can’t really see any weaknesses in coach Steve Hansen’s selections.  This a forward pack who can push anyone around the park in no uncertain terms and I fully expect them to match anything the Springboks can throw at them this weekend.  The battle between the two number eights, Burger for South Africa and Read for New Zealand is a really exciting aspect of the game to look forward to.  Raw talent and youth in South Africa’s centerfield pairing meets probably one of the most experienced and talented duos in the international game in the form of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.  We all saw the magic these two were able to create in this year’s Super Rugby tournament and expect more of the same on Saturday.  Israel Dagg seems to be finding his form again and he will be evenly matched by South Africa’s Willie le Roux.  Lastly on the wings, Piutau showed he was no slacker last weekend and even though he normally plays fullback, Ben Smith is arguably one of the finest backs in the world, blessed with the vision and skill set that would be the envy of any team.

So now for the hard part – who will win this epic?  There is no question that home ground advantage is a huge plus for the South Africans and the value of the “sixteenth man” will be much in evidence on Saturday.  However, I just can’t help feeling that as much as South Africa are fired up for this one and if anything need to win it far more than the All Blacks, the resulting pressure may just be too much especially for coach Heineke Meyer who as most people know is not someone I have a huge amount of confidence in in such situations.  It is going to be ever so close and expect edge of the seat of the stuff, but I can’t help feeling that New Zealand are just that bit more comfortable in their game plan right now as well as being far better at adapting to a changing situation as dictated by the conditions they face on the day.  Therefore the All Blacks to just edge it by 2 in a truly nail biting contest.  For South Africa’s sake I hope I am wrong as there is no question that a loss will be very damaging to their confidence going into a World Cup, but they know they will have to be at their absolute best and find an extra shot of that self-belief that their New Zealand rivals Ben Smith and Aaron Smith showed so much of in Super Rugby this year!

Argentina vs Australia
Saturday, July 25th
Mendoza

As much as I think that Argentina have improved in the last two years, and laser incidents aside, were deserved winners in this fixture last year, a World Cup year is a very different prospect.  Australia will simply not tolerate a repeat performance of last year and have everything to prove.  Wallaby coach Michael Cheika has sensibly recognised the negative implications of a potential loss and selected the exceptionally solid and tried and trusted halfback pairing of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley.  There will be no gambles on the mercurial and in my opinion vastly overrated Quade Cooper even though he will be warming the bench – I am assuming as a possible impact player at the end.  The forwards remain relatively unchanged from last week, with Michael Hooper this time switching with David Pocock to the bench and the latter getting the starting berth at number 7.  Meanwhile the back line sees the inclusion of Matt Toomua at centre and Joe Tomane on the wing, both of whom had a stellar season in Super Rugby with the Brumbies and I personally think are the right choice.  It is also interesting to see Kurtley Beale on the bench and I fully expect to see him work some magic with Adam Ashley-Cooper once he is brought on.  All in all a very solid looking Wallaby outfit with plenty of depth and a good bench, able to match the Pumas legendary physicality with enough pace and speed in the back line to wreak havoc should the Argentinian defences start to crack.

As for Argentina, as much as I admire them as a team and the enormous progress they have made under coach Daniel Hourcade, I can’t help feeling that as close as they will run the Wallabies on Saturday, a repeat of last year’s heroics is not quite on the cards this year.  As powerful a forward pack as Argentina are boasting for this fixture I simply think that this aspect of Australia’s game has improved enough to not have them pushed around the park like they were last year by the Pumas.  On that note I am looking forward to seeing Javier Ortega Desio in action at number 6 as he was impressive when he came on as a substitution last week.  Furthermore, a standout player for me was the new number eight Facundo Isa for Argentina and he will certainly be a player to watch for the future.  I will even go so far as to say Facundo is likely to get the better of his more experienced Australian counterpart Ben McCalman.  Argentina’s halfback pairing of Sanchez and Landajo while good simply doesn’t have the quality of Phipps/Foley.  Sanchez will also have to dramatically improve his kicking performance from that which was on show against New Zealand.  The back line sees the return from injury of the very impressive Gonzalo Camacho but without any real form to base it on there are lots of question marks around his selection – he will either amaze or fizzle under pressure.  In short, apart from Juan Imhoff this is a very inexperienced, albeit exciting, back line for Argentina and I can’t help feeling that Australia’s experience in this area of the game will easily be the decider.  Argentina’s bench does hold some possible game changers in the shape of Leonardo Senatore, Tomás Cubelli and
Lucas González Amorosino and it remains to be seen how and when they will be used.

So in short, an interesting encounter lies ahead. There is no question that Argentina will be backing themselves to repeat their success of last year especially at home. However, despite best intentions there is still a slightly experimental feel to this Pumas side with lots of question marks around it, even though such questions could all have very exciting answers. The Wallabies on the other hand, are riding high on self-belief and confidence and are eager to prove that under coach Michael Cheika they are finally onto a winning formula. On paper they simply look the more balanced and structured side and as a result despite home advantage for the Pumas I am having to give this to Australia by 5. By the same token I am hoping for an epic contest from the Pumas that will put them in a good position for their two fixtures with South Africa, as well as the development of a solid platform to take to the World Cup for this team that is continually showing more and more promise every year. As I have said repeatedly in these pages, lest we forget what the men from Argentina can do when it really matters, have a look at this. Ancient history it may be now but still shows that sometimes the desire to win outweighs everything!

The next month sees an abbreviated Rugby Championship as a result of the World Cup only 2 months away but the brevity of this year’s competition certainly doesn’t diminish the significance or importance of the tournament.  What it does perhaps highlight is a challenging travel schedule over a relatively short period of time, with Australia and South Africa definitely having the better luck of the draw, whereas Argentina and New Zealand will have to factor jet lag and life on the road into their strategy.  New Zealand after this year’s Super Rugby tournament and the All Blacks dominance of international rugby in 2014, are surely the favorites despite a daunting itinerary of continent hopping.  Meanwhile Argentina, have an even more challenging travel schedule which ultimately despite their best efforts may provide them with too much to do.  South Africa and Australia have the luxury of less travel and greater home advantage, which provided they can move on from their poor performances in Super Rugby this year should make them strong contenders to derail the All Black juggernaut!

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Argentina
Friday, July 17th
Christchurch

New Zealand have the enviable task of starting the competition at home in Christchurch.  There is no doubt that home advantage and lessons learnt ten days ago in a tough test against Samoa, should make the Men in Black as favourites for this one.  This is not to discredit Argentina, but as their first international outing as a team since last November, playing the All Blacks at home is a pretty tall order, especially as there is a slightly new look and feel to this Pumas side for this year.

Argentina have said, which came as little surprise to most, that they will use their world-class scrum as their key weapon against New Zealand on Friday.  Argentina’s front three of Marcos Ayerza, Agustín Creevy and Ramiro Herrera will challenge any front three New Zealand can put up against them, even given the significant pedigree that New Zealand were able to demonstrate in this year’s Super Rugby. However, once you move away from the scrum and set-pieces I would imagine that New Zealand will easily start to pull away from Argentina especially once the ball gets amongst the backs. If the electric Waisake Naholo has any say in the matter then Argentina will have to fall back on their traditionally resolute defense. If the Pumas can ensure that New Zealand are deprived of quick ball then the scores should be fairly close albeit still in favour of New Zealand.  One question mark for me is will the normally talismanic Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe recover his usual inspirational form in a Pumas shirt or will the rather hit and miss form he showed for Toulon this season continue?

Many people have criticised Argentina for not sending their first string team to New Zealand for this match and some have even labelled it disrespectful to the All Blacks.  In fairness, with a World Cup only two months away it is unrealistic to expect Argentina to send all its first choice players to a match they feel in all likelihood they will probably lose and thus risk injury to players vital to the Pumas World Cup campaign only weeks away.  As good as Argentina is they have only about the third of the depth that New Zealand has in their player base.  Instead, they will probably focus on the one match in this year’s abbreviated Championship that they feel they have a chance of winning, the home game against Australia, and use the other two away matches to test new combinations and give newer players a shot at top-level competition in readiness for the World Cup.  In fairness to Argentina, New Zealand are not exactly fronting many of their first choice players for this match either, and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has adopted a similar philosophy to that of his Pumas counterpart Daniel Hourcade, in resting key players for certain matches.  Lastly let’s not forget that Argentina will play New Zealand again this year but this time in the pool stages of the World Cup and I would imagine that they will certainly front their best squad for such a crucial game on that occasion, especially as it will likely decide who finishes first and second in the pool.

Nevertheless with the likes of try scoring machine TJ Perenara directing New Zealand’s efforts from the base of the scrum as well as constantly harrying the Pumas at scrum time, you realize that New Zealand will still be boasting far too much talent up front and in the backs to let the Pumas ever really establish any kind of dominance.  It will be interesting to see if Israel Dagg who forms the last line of defence for New Zealand in the backs can recover from his recent dip in form.  If Waisake Naholo is cut loose on the wing then expect plenty of sniping attacks on a stretched Argentine defence from every quarter of the field.  Throw in the talents of Ma’a Nonu who had a barnstorming Super Rugby season with the Hurricanes and you realise that there is just too much class in New Zealand’s back line for an initial outing by a Pumas side who have not played together in almost a year.  Argentina will challenge New Zealand up front, but even there they will be hard-pressed against the likes of Richie McCaw and Brodie Retallick with the latter rapidly returning to his immense form.

So in short, I predict a comfortable win for New Zealand against a solid performance from Argentina who will use this match to really prepare for an encounter against Australia at home where they will fancy their chances much more.  New Zealand to take this by 12!

Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, July 18th
Brisbane

Of the two games this weekend this is by far the harder to call. After South Africa’s performance against a World XV last weekend, one could argue on paper that South Africa easily look the more dangerous side. However, I am afraid that as much as I was impressed by some aspects of South Africa’s efforts, I simply can’t put too much weight on such a match. It’s a one-off and a Test match is a very, very different beast.

However, for South Africa let’s look at the positives. Willie Le Roux seemed to return to his absolute best in the fullback spot and was instrumental in defence and attack. The new centerfield pairing of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel seemed to fire, especially in the case of De Allende, whose spectacular form at the end of the Stormers’ Super Rugby campaign was much in evidence. For any rugby fan irrespective of your loyalties it was fantastic and inspirational to see one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors Jean de Villiers make a heroic comeback from a horrific injury, and there is no doubt that his presence will provide valuable inspiration and courage to the rest of his teammates. Marcel Coetzee who has always impressed me along with Eben Etzebeth were showing some absolutely superb form which helped to compensate for the worrying absence of Duane Vermeulen in the side.  However, the choice of Schalk Burger at number 8 in place of the injured Vermeulen is sure to help alleviate such concerns.  Although not Burger’s normal position, South Africa’s legendary loose forward is having such a barnstormer of a year I have every confidence in him delivering what is expected of him on the day provided he can keep his composure and discipline.

So in short lots of positives for the Springboks, but also some concerns. The worrying trend of useless kicking and thus giving away perfectly good possession still seems to be an issue in the Springbok camp and flyhalf Handre Pollard despite his obvious talents and work ethic is still lacking the composure and big game experience often required at this level. Don’t get me wrong he has the skill set and when it all clicks together he can be one of the best in the world, the problem is it is just too hit and miss at times. Furthermore the Springboks are still suffering from a lack of discipline which cost them dearly last year and has the potential to do so again this year. They seem to rely on a premise of all out physicality at any cost which at times causes them to lose sight of the overall ebb and flow of the game as well as push them into the very fringes of the laws of the game as their concentration breaks down and with it their discipline. These are all problems that a side boasting the talent it has should be able to fix. However, their first outing of real merit is away from home at a venue, Brisbane, that has not been kind to the Springboks. South Africa’s poor record on the road last year and their Super Rugby record on the road this year, ultimately may put them at a slight disadvantage this Saturday against an Australian side at home and with everything to prove.  Lastly the choice of Jannie Du Plessis in the forwards and JP Pietersen on the wing, defy all logic as these two players’ form in the last year has been questionable to say the least and South Africa has so many more exciting and promising prospects on hand in these positions.  There occasionally does seem to be an “old boys network” prevalent with coach Heineke Meyer’s selections and let’s hope he knows something we don’t.

As for Australia, they will be desperate to prove that last year’s record was merely a process of them welding a new team together under new coach Michael Cheika and that Super Rugby performances really don’t have a bearing on Wallaby performances. I will accept the first point but can’t help being sceptical about the second. This is not to say however, that if they click and get the combinations right, the Wallabies have the potential to be world beaters every time they run out onto the park. The skill and talent available to them from 9-15 has been clearly demonstrated for all to see. For me one true standout player for Australia during this year’s Super Rugby was veteran centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and I expect to see him causing lots of havoc over the coming weeks. There has been much talk of Israel Folau, and while I don’t doubt his genius I have often found him highly vulnerable defensively and easy for other teams to read on attack to the point where he can often be effectively silenced and starved of quality ball for the full eighty minutes. Which Folau we will get over the coming weeks and in the World Cup remains to be seen but South Africa will be wise to have a plan to keep him in check.

For such a crucial game, I must confess to being very surprised by Australian coach, Michael Cheika’s selection to take on South Africa.  Up front, provided they can keep their discipline I fully expect South Africa to have the edge over Australia.  I was pleased to see Scott Fardy in the starting lineup for the Wallabies, especially as he had a solid season with the Brumbies and I have often felt he is one of Australia’s most underrated players.  If David Pocock, who arguably was the best number 7 of this year’s Super Rugby competition, is able to make an impact after coming off the bench and dominate the ball in the loose then this could well give Australia a much-needed edge in the final quarter. There is no doubt that South Africa will be well prepared for any rolling maul attempts by Australia through which Pocock has proved to be so devastatingly effective.  Australia’s halfback pairing choice for such an important game has left me wondering though.  The form halfback partnership for Australia in this year’s Super Rugby was without doubt Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley of the Waratahs, with the Brumbies Nic White also providing solid service.  Quade Cooper and Will Genia did little for the Australian cause with the Reds this season, and while I can perhaps see some merit in Genia’s selection, I can’t help feeling that Cooper especially for big games like this is probably not only Australia’s most overrated player, but also a huge liability.  I am sure that I will get completely shot down by Australian supporters for this last comment but let Saturday be the test!

In short, in front of a home crowd I expect Australia to just clinch a hard-fought and intensely even contest. I would even go as far as saying that the Springboks may well hold the edge for the first hour.  However, as South Africa’s first proper test of a new look team, this will be a tough game on the road. They will be competitive for the full eighty minutes but I think home advantage will just swing the game in favour of an Australian side brimming with talent in the last quarter especially as the bench starts to make an impact.  Despite the slightly bizarre halfback choice based on form, and with everything to prove – Australia by 2!