Archive for the ‘Rugby Championship 2017’ Category

The final round of the Rugby Championship saw New Zealand emerge once more as the dominant force in this tournament by a country mile, but the last weekend did produce one of the most epic Tests of the year as the All Blacks and Springboks went to battle in Cape Town. It was a Test match that had all the qualities that make encounters between these two old rivals so special, and in doing so it made sure that one of the most anticipated fixtures on the annual Test calendar lived up to its vintage pedigree. The match between Argentina and Australia by comparison was always going to struggle to be viewed in the same light but it still provided an entertaining spectacle and while it may have raised more questions than answers for Pumas supporters, Wallaby fans can certainly look forward to a tough November tour of Europe with some degree of optimism.

So let’s look at the teams in the order they finished to try to figure out what they have learnt over the course of the last two months starting with New Zealand.

New Zealand

New Zealand may have emerged once more as all-conquering heroes, but just as we saw on the Lions tour to the land of the long white cloud earlier this year, they didn’t quite have things all their own way as well as not being at their ruthless and clinical best at times. New Zealand have clearly started their buildup to the World Cup in Japan in two years time in earnest, and as a result have used this tournament in particular to develop some depth, blood new players and experiment with combinations. While they may have occasionally tripped over their boot laces in doing so at times, we would have to say that the experiment has been successful as a whole. The raw talent that New Zealand put on display during the course of the tournament was spectacular, and while it may still be a bit rough round the edges, their arsenal of skilled players who are only going to get better must surely look terrifying to those who will be attempting to knock them off their World Cup pedestal in Japan in two years time.

New Zealand suffered their fair share of injuries during the tournament, causing them to develop a very capable and effective back up front row, which as far as we could see had absolutely no weaknesses in the shape of Codie Taylor, Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala. The regular stalwarts of Dane Coles, Owen Franks and Joe Moody are clearly Head Coach Steve Hansen’s first choice, but these three understudies mean that New Zealand want for nothing in terms of consistency and prowess once the bench is called into play.

New Zealand, in the shape of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, clearly have the world’s best second row partnership without question. However, add the figure of Scott Barrett as a partner to either of these two and New Zealand lose very little in terms of a starting XV. We’d argue that South Africa perhaps has the slightly more comprehensive depth here, but New Zealand’s premier pairing of Whitelock and Retallick has become such a benchmark in terms of a world-class second row, that it is still going to be very difficult for any team to really cause New Zealand consistent problems here.

Back row depth continues to be a huge strength for New Zealand, as it has for quite some time now. The retirement of the legendary Richie McCaw seems to have caused New Zealand very few problems. Kieran Read is rising admirably to the task of filling McCaw’s massive boots as Captain, to the point that for many of us, it’s hard to believe he has only been in the role since last year. Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Matt Todd are all household names when it comes to talking about Test Rugby back rows, and a certain Vaea Fifita made us all think that the mighty Jonah Lomu had been reincarnated.  Fifita’s Test debut in the home game against Argentina was nothing short of spectacular. Ardie Savea seems to be the impact player of choice off the bench, and his frenetic energy causes opposition defences all kinds of headaches as he simply pops up everywhere.

Just as Retallick and Whitelock take global honors for the World’s best second row, New Zealand’s half back partnership of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett do the same for the 9 and 10 spot, with TJ Perenara making sure that nothing is lost in terms of intensity off the bench. However, as good as these two are, it does raise for us one question about New Zealand and that is where does New Zealand really stand if Beauden Barrett is not available? New Zealand rely so heavily on the young man that his understudy Lima Sopoaga, a fine player in his own right, simply hasn’t had the amount of game time that we think he should have got during this tournament, especially with an eye to the World Cup. Furthermore, Barrett’s goalkicking is a clear cause of concern for New Zealand – spot on one match and then seemingly unable to hit a barn door the next. His brother Jordi Barrett has been put forward as an answer to the goalkicking duties as has the exceptional Damian McKenzie. However, as good as Barrett is this is something which New Zealand will really need to seek some answers to in November.

New Zealand had so much talent on display in the backs during this tournament, that we actually forgot that Ben Smith only played in the opening two matches. Winger Rieko Ioane clearly came into his own in this tournament as did Damian McKenzie. Ioane’s debut on the Lions tour made us sit up and take notice and he continued to impress in this tournament – clearly a player who is just going to get better and better. The tournament also saw the welcome return of Nehe Milner-Skudder who then sadly was once more ruled out with injury. The wings are perhaps still the one area where New Zealand still looks slightly unsettled and the continuing injury count here is not helping them find solutions. In the centres the question is simply what is the long-term centre combination? Is it Ryan Crotty/Anton Lienert-Brown or Crotty/Sonny-Bill Williams? To be honest we are still unable to answer this question by the end of the tournament. It would seem that Hansen prefers the Crotty/Williams combination with Lienert-Brown being favored as the impact player off the bench. We still argue that Lienert-Brown is the more creative player than Williams but there is no denying Williams’ ability to make solid and bruising impact up the inside channels. Perhaps November will put this question to bed once and for all.

Lastly, we take our hats off to Damian McKenzie at fullback. This was his chance to really show what he can do and try to make the 15 jersey his. Sure he tripped up a few times in the process, but overall we thought he made an exceptional contribution to the All Blacks’ efforts over the last two months. Agreed his place kicking sometimes lacked some finesse, and his defensive work could occasionally be called into question, but give this guy some space and some extraordinary things start to happen on the rugby pitch. His diminutive size seems not to matter as he hurls himself into tackles on players twice his size and stature with fearless abandon, while being almost impossible to bring down himself. This is an extraordinary player in our opinion and someone who is going to feature heavily in New Zealand’s plans for Japan. He has earned his stripes and his right to be an integral part of any starting All Black XV, it now remains to be seen how New Zealand use him between now and 2019.

In summary, are New Zealand still THE benchmark team in Test Rugby? Without any shadow of a doubt yes! Are they as polished as in years gone by? Perhaps not but the lack of shine at times, given the extraordinary depth of talent at their disposal, is only a temporary illusion. To defeat New Zealand is not beyond the realm of possibility but it will have to be a rather extraordinary team that does it, and with New Zealand’s remarkable ability to regroup after any setback, don’t expect it to happen with any degree of regularity.

Australia

You could have been forgiven for thinking that Australia were potential contenders for the wooden spoon in this year’s Rugby Championship, therefore their second place finish is certainly cause for celebration by their supporters. Australia’s transformation started in the second half of the opening match against New Zealand and was confirmed in their heartbreaking loss to the All Blacks in Dunedin a week later. Australia are back and starting to look ominous once more which one could argue is the perfect trajectory leading up to a World Cup in two years.

Australia’s scrum has been the laughing-stock of Test Rugby for the last two years, but in this tournament while being a long way from dominant it has finally become a reliable platform for the Wallabies, coupled to some solid lineout throwing. The front row partnership of Sekope Kepu, Scott Sio and Tatafu Polota-Nau seems to be working and what’s more can hold its own. New Zealand and South Africa have some exceptional front row prowess and Australia showed in this tournament that they can now be competitive once more at scrum time, with their notorious ill-discipline vastly improved. On a tough November tour, we’ll get a real test of how much progress Australia have really made here.

For us one of the most exciting developments for Australia has been in the second row. We have consistently been fans of Adam Coleman, and he certainly did not disappoint in this tournament. Furthermore, put him together with Rory Arnold and the signposts to Japan could not be clearer. Australia spent a lot of time tinkering with who should partner Coleman, and the jury seems to be very much out in terms of a verdict here and likely to remain so certainly until the end of November. We prefer the Arnold option but it seems that Coach Michael Cheika seems to be in two minds, and we hope for some consistency in terms of selection decisions come November.

Australia’s back row is clearly becoming a force to be reckoned with once more, especially once David Pocock returns next year. Michael Hooper seems to be responding well to the Captain’s role, and once he got over his wobbles in the first half of the opening match of the tournament, he ended up being a wrecking ball for the rest of the tournament. Australia tinkered all Championship in terms of selecting his partner to the point where we can’t really see any clear patterns developing here, plenty of potential, but no real answers. At number eight, Sean McMahon had some really outstanding performances, but then by the same token on a few occasions also failed to show up. His departure to Japan will clearly pose the Australian selectors with some headaches between now and the World Cup.

In the half backs, consistency seemed to be Australia’s biggest problem. Fly half Bernard Foley is not having a good year, especially when it comes to kicking duties. When it does fire for him we still think he is an exceptional player, but he has struggled to string together some solid performances this year, and with no real backup for this position, Australia surely have some concerns here. Will Genia at scrum half was outstanding at times, but then other matches he appeared strangely quiet. Many, ourselves included, thought that prior to the start of the tournament he had reached his sell by date, but the second Test against New Zealand proved us all wrong in no uncertain terms. However, his replacement, Nick Phipps is still too much of a wild card for us and the November tour to Europe should have the goal of getting some consistency in terms of Australia’s abilities here as a key focus.

In the backs, Australia have experienced a renaissance harking back to the glory days of Australian rugby. The centre partnership of Kurtley Beale and Tevita Kuridrani is world-class and something we expect to see lighting up the pitches of Europe come November. Beale has transformed himself into some sort of magician since his time in England, and alongside Kuridrani who seems able to batter his way through opposition defences at will, this is a highly effective and dangerous combination. On the wings the revelation of the last two Tests was Rugby League convert Marika Koroibete. We had our doubts but were blown away by this gentleman’s speed and power – in short look out Europe! Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty, once the latter returns from injury, also look exceptional strike threats and Australia should feel pretty confident about their abilities on the park in this department. Lastly Israel Folau showed us on numerous occasions how dangerous he can be, but also he appeared guilty of not showing up for some matches and putting others on the back burner. Just like their half backs Australia need some consistency from this exceptional player.

Australia, have gone from being a bit of a laughing-stock last year, to rapidly developing into a quietly smoking gun this year. Anyone who takes the threat they pose lightly will be in for a nasty shock – England, Scotland and Wales you have been warned! We also think that the third Bledisloe Cup match, although a dead rubber, will be a genuinely interesting contest this Saturday in Brisbane.

South Africa

Like Australia, South Africa have emerged from the ashes of their nightmare 2016 season in fine fettle. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the Test against the All Blacks a fortnight ago in Cape Town was one of the best of 2017, and the Springboks must take enormous credit for making it such a spectacle. We had predicted a bloodbath and were absolutely delighted to have been proven completely wrong. It was an epic performance from South Africa and one that must surely give them enormous confidence heading into a tough end of year tour. Some have said that Springbok rugby as we know it is dead but we have to disagree. You don’t put in a performance like that against the best side in the world if you are a team in decline.

It was South Africa’s front row that proved to be one of the talking points of the tournament, and Hooker Malcolm Marx in particular. Although Marx had a shocker of a game in New Zealand against the All Blacks, in every other Test he was outstanding and in the final match in Cape Town his performance was off the charts and the stuff of Springbok legends. In short, he was for us perhaps the player of the tournament, and a fantastic weapon in South Africa’s arsenal. Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen provided the stability to a South African scrum that proved difficult to gain any traction on. The loss of Oosthuizen to injury was a huge blow to South Africa and their performance suffered as a result, as Ruan Dreyer is unfortunately not the answer at tighthead. How they fix this for November remains to be seen, but as evidenced in Cape Town a fortnight ago it is not beyond the realm of possibility and we like the look of new prop Wilco Louw as a possible solution. Furthermore if the Beast runs out of puff, then Steven Kitshoff is a very worthy replacement even in the starting XV. To be honest his performance in Cape Town was so impressive we’d actually argue for giving him an increasing role in the starting XV as preparation for Japan.

In the second row, South Africa showed they had an abundance of depth. Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Lood de Jaeger run on like a veritable honor roll of Test rugby second rowers. The jury is still out for us on Etzebeth in the Captaincy role and how he handles himself on the road in November will be the ultimate Test for us. Nevertheless in Cape Town we felt he really stood up and was counted, after letting the side down against Australia the week before, especially as Captain, as his infamous temper got the better of him. Furthermore, much to our surprise, given that previous experiments in this regard hadn’t worked, Du Toit showed in Cape Town that he is also a pretty handy back rower to boot.

In the back row, South Africa has got some real power and pace. As mentioned above, Pieter-Steph du Toit stood out in this role in Cape Town, and regulars like Jaco Kriel and the exceptional Siya Kolisi were outstanding. Francois Louw also made a welcome return to Test rugby and impressed both at 7 and eight, while Jean-Luc du Preez is also a real talent in the making in both positions. However, long-term questions remain regarding who best to play at number eight in the absence of regular and Captain Warren Whiteley. Debutant for this season Uzair Cassiem often looked out of his depth in the role and South Africa played better in his absence.

In the half backs, South Africa have a solid, albeit not spectacular, partnership in the shape of Elton Jantjies at fly half and Ross Cronje at scrum half. They may not have the razzle dazzle of their New Zealand, Australian and Argentine counterparts but you know what you’re going to get from these two and it often translates into reliability and points on the board. The brief return of fly half Handre Pollard in the Cape Town Test made us all sit up and take notice and it will be interesting to see how he and Jantjies share the duties come November.

In the backs though the jury still remains out for us in terms of where South Africa is at. Jan Serfontein was impressive at times at centre and Andries Coetzee made an excellent start to his Test career at fullback. However we struggled to find any patterns of play evident in the back five during the course of the Championship, whereas the developments and improvements taking place amongst the forwards were clear to see for everyone. To be honest we are hoping that where South Africa is heading in terms of its back line play will become more evident to us come the November Tests. We know that wingers Courtnall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds can be exciting players, and must confess to really liking what we saw from Leyds both in attack and defence in the last two Tests. However, these players appeared to be used almost sporadically by the rest of the team throughout the Championship. Furthermore, alarm bells continue to ring in how South Africa finds a bench that can field some impact when it comes to the backs. Sadly we are not seeing much to get excited about. If Damian de Allende is as good as it gets then that’s not really saying much and something South African supporters must be genuinely concerned about with two years to go before the World Cup.

South Africa, despite the shock and horror of the one-off 57-0 defeat in New Zealand, have like Australia made some really positive progress during the course of this tournament. For the most part, especially up front, they are in an excellent place. For us it is lingering concerns about their back line and their ability to perform outside of South Africa that remain nagging questions. The November Tour will hopefully answer at least the question relating to whether or not South Africa can translate the kind of epic display they put on in Cape Town to a string of consistent performances on the road next month. Either way though it is great to see this traditionally proud rugby nation have something to cheer about once more.

Argentina

If you have to ask the question what has Argentina learnt from the Rugby Championship, the answer is sadly not much! Right now they seem to be a sixty minute team, blessed with remarkable individual talent but a complete lack of patience and cohesion in their game play. As a result their performances look error strewn mishaps made worse by constant breakdowns in discipline as their frustrations mount. Probably the most pertinent lesson they can take from this tournament is that not being able to use their overseas based players is severely hampering the potential of Argentinian rugby to remain competitive at Test level. Furthermore, the tournament has brought Coach Daniel Hourcade into the spotlight in rather negative terms, and sadly he seems to have fallen rather dramatically from being seen in such a positive light after the last World Cup.

Argentina’s once dominant scrum prowess sadly seems to have become a thing of the past. There is no question that Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is one of the best in the world, and the inspiration he provides to his team is second to none. However, the rest of his teammates in the front row have sadly not been able to back him up. As a result the Pumas scrum has rarely struck fear into the hearts of their opposition for quite a while now. Quite frankly we are struggling to see any long-term solutions to this.

The second row is perhaps one area where Argentina have learnt the most. Tomas Lavanini despite his passion for the jersey would seem to be too much of a disciplinary headache for the Pumas. Our heart actually goes out to him as wearing the jersey clearly means so much to him, just watch him struggling to keep the tears at bay during the national anthems at the start of their second Test against the All Blacks in Buenos Aires, but that emotion clearly gets the better of him when it comes to physical confrontation. Consequently the partnership of Matias Alemanno and Guido Petti would appear to be the way forward for Argentina, and to be fair this is a solid platform with Alemanno really standing out over the last two months. There appears to be some depth here as well in the shape of Marcos Kremer.

In the back rows, Argentina have also learnt that they can produce quality number eights. Like many we felt that the loss of the exceptional Facundo Isa to Toulon would spell the end of Argentina’s proven traction in this position. However, Tomas Lezana has clearly stepped up to the plate and performed admirably and shown plenty of promise, meaning that the loss of Isa has clearly not proven to be the national tragedy that many predicted. Pablo Matera was one of the top performers in terms of loose flankers throughout the tournament, with Javier Ortega Desio providing him with more than ample support. Benjamin Macome also made some impressive debuts, leaving us with the opinion that while there are concerns as to what Argentina’s back row unit may look like in the long run, there is no doubt that there is plenty to work with, and that perhaps can be regarded as one of the positive lessons learnt from Argentina’s Rugby Championship.

In the half backs Argentina know they have plenty of class, but increasingly lack the patience or skill set to pull off the rather elaborate type of game they are trying to play. Scrum half Martin Landajo and fly half Nicolas Sanchez are exciting players, but they are clearly not firing individually and together as a unit. Sanchez in particular appears to be struggling to find his rhythm of seasons past. However, neither of them appear to have the skill set to run the kind of game they are trying to execute. In short, they are making Argentina look over ambitious in one breath and impatient the next.

In the backs, the problems at half back are accentuated. Argentina is blessed with some wonderful talent in the backs. Fullback Joaquin Tuculet, wingers Emiliano Boffelli and Matias Moroni and centre Matias Orlando are all exceptional players, but sadly appear to be operating in an outfit that rarely knows how to use their talents. Consequently they are expected to produce miracles as individuals as opposed to operating within a clearly thought out and well executed game plan. It’s this last point which perhaps stands out the most in terms of what Argentina has learnt from this tournament. They seem to be bereft of direction both off and on the field. You would be hard pressed to identify what Argentina’s strengths are as a team. There are plenty of individual talents but you rarely see them at work in terms of a team performance.

Argentina have to find some answers and fast, but sadly we think that there is more disappointment ahead of them next month. A poor Rugby Championship devoid of results is not the kind of track record that you want to be taking on the road on a tour where you will be going up against the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere – England and Ireland. Perhaps they will surprise us all and in the process learn the lessons that they should have learnt over the last two months. We hope that November is a positive experience for Argentina as it has saddened us to see the promise they showed in the last World Cup amount to very little in the last two years, especially given the talent they have at their disposal.

Endnote

As always we end with another excellent video from the lads at the 1014. This review of the 2017 Rugby Championship provides some fascinating insights into the tournament and the players which will give us plenty to think about and look forward to come the November Internationals. Enjoy and make sure you like and subscribe!

Just a quick round of our musings this week, as we seem to have been swept by a particularly nasty version of the fall cold that is sweeping through our kids’ schools – end result not much time or energy to talk about matters pertaining to the oval ball. So it will be a quick summary set of points rather than our usual head to head analysis this week to back up our predictions.

So no surprises here, New Zealand have once again got the Championship sewn up with a round to spare. Sure they have provided us with plenty of talking points, especially as they have used this tournament to really experiment with new players and combinations. While it may not have fired with their usual clinical efficiency they have still retained the title of the world’s only rugby superpower blessed with a depth of talent that most national coaches can only dream about.

South Africa have also had a go at experimentation, but for the most part it hasn’t worked. Sure they got wins against a fractured Argentinian side in their opening two encounters, but even those victories looked laboured at times. They have showcased some phenomenal talent over the course of the tournament but there has been a lack of cohesion in the team especially when under pressure. Lastly their ability to execute some of the key basics of the game, and turn possession into points has been a major weakness.

Australia have had many of the same problems, but their comeback against New Zealand away from home in Round 2, even though they ultimately lost, has left us with the impression that they are having more success with their own learning curve than South Africa. They are developing some solid foundations and there is the nucleus of a team there now with some proven depth and promising talent. Australia are not out of the woods yet, but they seem to have made more progress in moving on from their own nightmares of the last twelve months.

Argentina, have been a conundrum. A team blessed with individual talent that seems to lack the structure and cohesiveness needed at Test level, coupled with an inability to last much beyond 60 minutes. They have put in some brilliant performances, but sadly been unable to turn it into results. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that even though we have loved watching them at times, we have never really felt that they are actually going to walk away the winners. Something just isn’t clicking in Argentinian rugby right now, and it remains to be seen if the lessons learnt in this tournament can be translated into some positive results come November and two very demanding Tests against the best in the Northern Hemisphere England and Ireland.

South Africa versus New Zealand
Saturday, October 7th
Cape Town

We’d all love to see South Africa regain some honor after the horror show that was the 57-0 drubbing they received in New Zealand a month ago. However, given the team that New Zealand have assembled for one of the highlights of the annual Test calendar, we sadly see more pain in store for South Africa despite home advantage. South Africa in turn have assembled a squad that continues to have us scratching our heads in terms of selection choices.

New Zealand look set to annihilate South Africa once more at scrum time. The new look All Black scrum without veteran props Owen Franks and Joe Moody, has gelled into a solid and reliable unit. South Africa are without the services of Tendai Mtawarira, and continue with Ruan Dreyer at tighthead prop. Mtawarira has been one of the standout performers in a troubled tournament for South Africa, and although he is replaced by Stephen Kitshoff, who we have a great deal of respect for, it is still a new unit with Ruan Dreyer a consistent weak link at tighthead. Dreyer did score a fine try against Australia, but his bread and butter work in the scrum is exceptionally weak and a constant source of penalty opportunities for the opposition.

South Africa also put the exceptional second rower Pieter-Steph du Toit at flanker, a position he clearly is not comfortable in, and flanker Francois Louw at number 8, a role the veteran Springbok has never performed. In short, the forward pack for the Springboks reeks of far too much forced experimentation for such a crucial match against a settled and dangerous All Black unit. Add to that a very average Springbok half back and back line contingent against an absolutely lethal All Black offering and we can’t see anything other than a convincing All Black victory.

While we don’t see New Zealand having it all their own way on Saturday, given it is home turf for South Africa, it is still fairly easy to predict the winner. South Africa will manage to get some points on the board this time, but that is about all we can say. New Zealand to finish the tournament in style with another emphatic win by 22 points!

Argentina vs Australia,
Saturday, October 7th
Mendoza

Argentina should and could win this match on home soil, however sadly we haven’t seen anything this tournament from them that makes us believe they will. It should be a good contest make no mistake, but Argentina have’nt quite got the momentum that Australia seem to be slowly building.

Argentina are clearly battling at scrum time despite the presence of the legendary Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy, and this traditional wonder weapon in their arsenal is rarely giving them a platform to work with. Australia on the other hand have made huge progress with their scrum in the last two months, after it having been the laughing-stock of Test Rugby for the last year. Argentina continue to field a strong second row and back row, but Australia’s seems to have gelled more in the tournament, despite continuous tinkering and experimentation with different players and combinations. Argentina have enormous individual raw talent in their second row and back row, but it has rarely clicked as a unit.

Australia are fielding the more reliable half back partnership in the shape of Bernard Foley and Will Genia, as sadly for us Nicolas Sanchez at fly half simply hasn’t been there for the Pumas this year when they have needed him most. Australia’s back line is clearly developing into the kind of strike platform of Wallaby sides of old, with Kurtley Beale in particular showing some exceptional skill and vision at times. Australia boasts a set of fast pacy runners who all seem to have a strong understanding of how to use space and create opportunities for the rest of their teammates. Argentina have some real talent here too, but they look at lot less patient than Australia and as a result too many moves look forced and consequently the errors mount.

As we always do, we’ll be cheering on the Pumas in their last fixture of the tournament, as this team so desperately needs and deserves a win in the Championship to build some much-needed confidence ahead of a daunting European tour next month. Sadly though we haven’t seen anything from Argentina this year that leads us to believe that they can win that vital final quarter of a Test match, whereas Australia look more dangerous in this department especially off the bench. A good match in prospect in which Argentina are likely to give it their all, but sadly in doing so are likely to trip themselves up as the match wears on. Australia to be the more accomplished side and walk away with it by eight points in the last ten minutes!

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!

And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed last weekend’s action:

https://therugbylineout.com/tvinternet-game-listings/

New Zealand have once again comprehensively got the Rugby Championship squared away in their favor this year, barring a miracle in Buenos Aires this weekend. Even if that were to happen, given the schooling they gave the Springboks a fortnight ago, it would still take a monumental effort in Cape Town next week from South Africa to make any kind of dent in the Men in Black’s complete domination of this tournament in recent years. Meanwhile South Africa desperately need to find redemption in Bloemfontein this weekend against Australia after the soul-destroying 57-0 loss to New Zealand a fortnight ago. As we feared, South Africa’s seeming resurgence this year proved fleeting once up against some serious opposition, coupled with their inability to string together victories away from home. Australia will also be seeking to make a point after a disappointing draw with the Springboks in Perth, but their conclusive win over the Pumas will mean that they may not be feeling the pressure as much as the Springboks. Lastly Argentina remain nil from four so far in the tournament despite putting in some big performances, most notably the thriller against the All Blacks in Round 3. In the first of two home fixtures they too will be seeking to make a point, but against an All Black side overflowing with talent, even if some of it is a bit raw, they are clearly going to be up against it.

Round 4 saw New Zealand completely eclipse South Africa in a textbook performance, as they dispatched the Springboks 57-0. They clearly took the threat of a Springbok side that was finally starting to show some promise seriously. In doing so though they showed once more how far ahead of the rest of the world they really are. South Africa simply imploded on the field as New Zealand ran rings around them. Wingers Rieko Ioane and the electric Nehe Milner-Skudder set the pitch alight, while for us fullback Damian McKenzie answered his critics and then some. Fly half Beauden Barrett brought his kicking boots with him once more, and New Zealand’s forwards negated any kind of threat the Springboks attempted to bring to the party. It was a complete team performance that showcased the remarkable depth of talent and skill levels this New Zealand side has at its disposal, even if it is not quite the thoroughbred stable of the 2011-2015 edition.

South Africa were found wanting and then some a fortnight ago. Admittedly their cause was not helped by the absence of three key players prop Coenie Oosthuizen, flanker Jaco Kriel and scrum half Ross Cronje, but to lose by such a record-breaking margin was hard to fathom as there was some considerable talent wearing the green and gold. There appeared to be a fundamental problem in terms of staying power, leadership and commitment especially in the final 60 minutes of the match for the Springboks. In the first quarter despite the scoreline building up in New Zealand’s favor there seemed plenty of intent from South Africa and they had the lions share of possession. However, possession was continually coughed up after a few promising phases and once the All Blacks found themselves in the open, South Africa’s weak defence especially out wide was shown up in glaring Technicolor. The pressure on them this weekend in front of one of Test Rugby’s most passionate groups of home supporters will be immense, and something they will really have to rise to in order to get themselves in the right head space for the ultimate fixture on their calendar of 2017 – the home Test against the All Blacks in Cape Town in just over a week.

Australia will feel happy with their effective demolition of Argentina a fortnight ago, but will suffer no illusions about the enormity of the task ahead of them this weekend. A wounded Springbok side at home is a very dangerous animal, especially at altitude, something which will definitely play a part in proceedings in Bloemfontein. South Africa is traditionally an unhappy hunting ground for the Wallabies and one in which they end up being the prey more often than the victor. However, with the spotlight being much more on the Springboks they may fancy their chances this weekend, and are more likely to be the calmer of the two sides.

Argentina on the other hand will not be happy with their performance a fortnight ago in Canberra. The Pumas once more showed that they struggle to be more than a sixty minute side. As always a few players really stood out, with Captain Agustin Creevy once more leading the charge and a solid performance from the back row forwards, but overall they never really looked like they were going to trouble a Wallaby side that, much like the Springboks this weekend, had it all to prove. Argentina will desperately want to salvage something out of this year’s Championship but the odds are against them this weekend, leaving them with the final fixture of the tournament, a home fixture against Australia, as the match they will realistically have to focus on as their best chance for a win.

So without any further ado let’s have a look at the matchups for another fascinating weekend of Test Rugby.

South Africa vs Australia
Saturday, September 30th
Bloemfontein

Without any shadow of a doubt this is the BIG match of the weekend. Two sides with everything to prove. The result of this match will say a great deal of who’s who in the pecking order for International Rugby. Of the two sides as we mentioned above, we think that South Africa at home will be feeling the pressure much more, allowing Australia to be able to focus much more on the business at hand. However, that being said South Africa know they have to produce a comprehensive win in order to be able to face their arch rivals the All Blacks with any degree of confidence in a week’s time in Cape Town. Strap yourselves in folks this should be one hell of a contest.

In the front rows, we buck the trend here and for once fancy Australia’s chances in this department. South Africa without Coenie Oosthuizen, and Malcolm Marx’s highly erratic form at the lineouts a fortnight ago against New Zealand, causes us to give the Australian trio the nod. Australia has struggled here of late but at the moment it seems to be gelling well and we have been impressed with Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau in his last two outings. Ruan Dreyer is for us not the answer at Tighthead Prop for South Africa, as he struggles with his binding and discipline, and the Australian trio will bring plenty of power and pressure on Saturday to make sure Dreyer’s problems continue. Springbok Hooker Malcolm Marx is a great player, make no mistake and we are huge fans, but perhaps the pressure of the occasion a fortnight ago got to him. When you take into account that he will be under the same kind of pressure, if not more, on Saturday, we sadly have to reserve judgement on this fine player’s potential performance till the final whistle. With the benches being pretty well even, and Australia seeing the return of Stephen Moore in his swan song year we still tilt our head towards the Wallabies camp in this section of the field.

In the second rows, we hand the ball back to South Africa as we expect to see a massive performance from the lock pair of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert especially in front of a home crowd. Mostert was strangely quiet in the Test against New Zealand, something we don’t expect to see a repeat of this Saturday, while Etzebeth really needs to channel his immense physicality and power into providing some solid leadership and momentum on the field. Australia field the excellent Adam Coleman who will provide a real challenge, but much to our surprise, Izack Rodda of the Brisbane Reds gets his first Test Cap. Not having watched much Super Rugby this year we are a bit in the dark on this newcomer so will have to reserve judgement, though the Reds were’nt exactly topping the charts this season. We would have thought now would have been the time to solidify the partnership between Coleman and Rory Arnold who has played some solid rugby this tournament, but can also understand Australian Coach Michael Cheika wanting to build some depth in his squad ahead of the World Cup. It’s the bench where South Africa should have the edge in the shape of Pieter-Steph du Toit up against Rob Simmons for Australia.

In the back rows, we also feel South Africa have the edge despite the continued absence of Jaco Kriel, an absence which was plain to see for all in the match against New Zealand. This match sees the return of veteran flanker Francois Louw, who needs no introduction but hasn’t played much in a Springbok jersey since the last World Cup. Consequently his performances have varied in quality and it remains to be seen what he can deliver on Saturday. However, we can’t help feel that given his experience and alongside the powerhouse of Siya Kolisi, the Springbok duo should get the better of Australian newcomer Jack Dempsey and the veteran Michael Hooper in front of a very vocal home crowd. At number eight Australia in our opinion have the clear edge in the shape of Sean McMahon who as regular readers know, is one of our top picks for a Wallaby starting XV in 2019. He should easily get the better of South Africa’s Uzair Cassiem who is clearly struggling to find his feet at Test level. Once again the bench should see South Africa edge the contest here in the shape of Jean-Luc du Preez over Australia’s Ned Hanigan, who despite some impressive statistics has rarely stood out for us so far in the tournament.

The halfback battle for us is a dead heat, with the South African duo perhaps having the slight edge simply due to the altitude and home soil. Australia’s scrum half Will Genia has been impressive this tournament, of that there is no question, but we also really like the calm head of South Africa’s Ross Cronje. He may not be as flash as his Australian counterpart but he does seem to be able to read the game relatively well and keep his cool, something that South Africa clearly lacked in his absence from the Test against New Zealand a fortnight ago. Of the two fly halves, South Africa’s Elton Jantjies seems to be having the more productive year and should be able to read the travel of the ball at altitude much better than Australia’s Bernard Foley. We are usually big fans of Bernard Foley but have to confess to finding him rather off his game this year, however, given his quality feel it is surely temporary. Off the bench Australian scrum half Nick Phipps has clearly had an impact in this tournament, despite him not being one of our first choice players as we find him rather impetuous and ill-disciplined at times. However, there is no denying that he has put in some good work for Australia in the final quarter of all of their Rugby Championship matches this year. We also feel that although South Africa’s Rudy Paige is not starting material at Test level for the scrum half position, he seems also capable of making an impact and as a result we are happy to see him on the bench for this match which should develop his playing abilities even further, especially in such a high stakes game. In short, home advantage and altitude should see South Africa emerge triumphant here.

Once again though it’s the doubts about South Africa’s back line strengths that cause us concern when looking at the centre matchups. While they may not be as great a worry as the wings, there is no doubt that in Kurtley Beale Australia have a magician, backed up by the brute force and raw power of Tevita Kuridrani – in our view the perfect centre pairing. South Africa’s Jessie Kriel and Jan Serfontein are solid players in their own right and Serfontein in particular is renowned for breaking the gain line. However, neither player has the vision and skill sets possessed by Australia’s Kurtley Beale, which makes us think the Wallaby duo, even at altitude, will dictate  proceedings here on Saturday.  Add Samu Kerevi to the Australian mix later in the match and Australia’s dominance here should be assured, as unfortunately in our opinion Damian de Allende brings little if anything to the table for South Africa.

On the wings, we’re giving South Africa the slight edge, mainly because we know little about the Australian number 14 Marika Koroibete. South Africa’s Courtnall Skosan needs no introduction, and despite a generally poor performance against New Zealand, he is still a serious threat out wide. The Springboks also blood Dillyn Leyds for the first time in the starting lineup on the wing. Consistently impressive this season for the Stormers in Super Rugby, Leyds has some impressive speed and some handling skills that can really light up a pitch. Australia’s Reece Hodge consistently gets a solid rating from us and he will certainly put Leyds defensive skills to the test. However, on home soil, given what is at stake and the potential X-factor Leyds has, we give South Africa the edge here.

At fullback, we also think that South Africa will be better suited to the challenges of the day in the shape of Andries Coetzee than the always exciting Israel Folau for Australia. Although Folau is the more experienced of the two and arguably the better player, we just think that Coetzee’s familiarity with the characteristics of high balls at altitude should mean he will be a better line of defense when the chips are down. However, if Folau brings his A-game then it doesn’t matter what the conditions, he is exceptionally dangerous with ball in hand and is a proven master under the high ball. Nevertheless expect to see South Africa put him under pressure with deep high kicks all afternoon.

There is no question that this is going to be an exceptionally tight match between two sides needing to make a statement. A loss at home for South Africa would be catastrophic, especially given the calibre of the opposition they face in a week’s time in Cape Town. Given the damage sustained to the South African rugby pysche a fortnight ago, we fear that another humiliation could once more see the rot creep in that plagued South Africa’s season so dramatically in the latter half of 2016. Nevertheless, despite the thrashing they got a fortnight ago, this Springbok team is still a stronger and more cohesive unit than it was a year ago. As a result, in a nail biting contest, we feel that home advantage will just see the Springboks home by two points!

Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, September 30th
Buenos Aires

New Zealand aren’t exactly coasting through this tournament, but their dominance is doubted by few. With the Championship honors wrapped up in New Zealand’s favor for all intents and purposes, experimentation and depth building are clearly at the top of the agenda for the New Zealand coaching staff. The squad picked for tomorrow’s match against Argentina is clear evidence of this. We’d argue that this has very much been the case for much of 2017 for New Zealand, even going back to the season’s opening matches against the Lions. New Zealand are clearly looking to assemble and fine tune the squad they want to take to the World Cup in 2019. Their problem lies less in ability and more, given the depth of talent at their disposal, who to pick and how to give them enough game time between now and 2019 to make them real contenders in Japan. Argentina on the other hand, boast plenty of talent but much of it lacks the kind of experience to really compete for a full eighty minutes at this level. It is the last quarter of every match that seems to be killing Argentina, not just in this tournament but every Test they have played since the World Cup. As we saw last month in New Zealand, they can actually beat the world’s best until the sixty minute mark. Until they can find that extra twenty minutes then Argentina will continue to promise so much, but with the odd exception like the 2015 World Cup quarter-final, rarely deliver. It remains to be seen what they can salvage from these last two home games in the tournament.

In the front rows, New Zealand field no changes from the one that so effectively put South Africa to the sword a fortnight ago. New Zealand’s Dane Coles appears to be back to his best at Hooker and “support winger” and newcomers Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames were immense against South Africa. Argentina’s trio of Hooker and Captain Fantastic Agustin Creevy and props Lucas Paz and Nahuel Tetaz is an impressive unit but it just doesn’t seem to be getting the traction that is usually associated with Argentinian front rows. The New Zealand scrum looked so accomplished a fortnight ago, we can’t see it changing this week, even away from home, so the All Blacks to have the clear advantage here. It’s a strong bench for Argentina in this department, but by the same token it’s equalled by New Zealand’s offering.

In the second rows, we have to confess some surprise at seeing Tomas Lavanini back in the squad for Argentina so soon again, after his supposed “cooling off period” for disciplinary issues. Don’t get us wrong he is a powerful and intimidating second rower in his own right, but given the kind of pressure that Argentina will be under to perform in front of a home crowd on Saturday in Buenos Aires, we fear that it will get to him causing the disciplinary lapses for which he has now sadly become a household name. We prefer the partnership of Matias Alemanno and Guido Petti, but are at least happy to see Petti make the starting lineup, although strangely Alemanno doesn’t even make the bench. New Zealand bring in Luke Romano and Scott Barrett and despite home advantage for the Pumas we still expect to see the All Black pair get the better of proceedings here, with many tipping Barrett for World Cup glory in 2019.

In the back rows, we see the return of Matt Todd for New Zealand, who while perhaps not a regular starter for the All Blacks he always impresses for the Crusaders. Meanwhile the man who lit up Round 3 of the tournament, Vaea Fifita returns. The big, powerful and devastatingly fast flanker put in a jaw dropping display against Argentina in New Zealand causing him to be instantly compared to the great Jonah Lomu. Up against Argentina’s Tomas Lezana and Pablo Matera expect to see more of the same, despite the quality of the Puma pair. New Zealand’s Kieran Read and Juan Manuel Leguizamon do battle at number eight, but sadly for us Leguizamon is seeing the twilight days of his career whereas the All Black Captain is clearly in his prime. It will be a solid contest and we expect the Argentinians to give as good as they get but with the experience of Read and the X-Factor of Fifita, we expect to see New Zealand get the upper hand, especially when the All Black whirlwind of destruction, Ardie Savea, comes off the bench.

In the contest between the halfbacks, we see probably Test rugby’s ultimate combination right now, New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, take to the field. It is perhaps a measure of the respect New Zealand has for Argentina that they choose to field these two, as opposed to giving Smith’s understudy at scrum half TJ Perenara a starting berth instead of warming the bench for the first hour. There is no question that the Smith/Barrett platform gives New Zealand such a commanding base to work from in the first sixty minutes as well as controlling any threats or surprises that opposition sides may have up their sleeves. Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez are accomplished players in their own right but just not in the same league as the New Zealand pair. Bring on TJ Perenara for New Zealand in the second half and despite Martin Landajo’s brilliance and energy for the Pumas whether as a starter or off the bench, the All Black still usually has the better execution and skill set.

In the centres, we don’t feel that Matias Orlando and Jeronimo De la Fuente have really fired this season for Argentina. Brilliant at times individually, they seem to have struggled to gel into this Pumas unit as a collective in the way that perhaps the coaching staff and supporters would have liked. Meanwhile we are delighted to see Anton Lienert-Brown get a starting berth, as for us he is one of the clearest sign posts to the 2019 World Cup for New Zealand. As usual we are waiting with bated breath for the evidence that makes Sonny Bill Williams appear at the top of every selection list drawn up by Coach Steve Hansen and the New Zealand management. Yes we’ve seen the offload statistics and we also get that Ryan Crotty is being rested for the big dustup in Cape Town, but come next Saturday, unless Williams leaves us speechless in this match then we would argue that the Lienert-Brown/Crotty axis is the one New Zealand should be solidifying for the World Cup. We wait to see if Juan Martin Hernandez will come off the bench for fly half Nicolas Sanchez or for one of the centres, but with Ngani Laumape on standby for New Zealand, Argentina are going to have to have their wits about them on Saturday. Expect to see New Zealand run proceedings again here on Saturday.

On the wings, it is once more likely to be New Zealand’s party on Saturday evening in Buenos Aires. Rieko Ioane has been one of THE talking points of the International season this year and Waisake Naholo needs no introduction whatsoever to those of us who know a fast pacy back when we see one. In fairness to Argentina they also have one of the talking points of the season in Emiliano Boffelli and if he gets put into any kind of space, New Zealand are going to have to be at their best, especially given the Pumas winger’s footballing skills. Off the bench, Santiago Cordero has the potential of being an enormous X-factor for Argentina, but to be honest we haven’t seen a great deal of this quality from the young man since the World Cup. The Pumas will need him to be at his best if they hope to have any chance of competing with New Zealand.

Lastly at fullback, New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie continues to grow into the role, but as we saw in Round 3, Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet actually got the better of the Kiwi youngster. McKenzie still has a lot to learn, but he possesses such a dazzling array of skills coupled to an almost cat-like sense of where his teammates are, that we agree wholeheartedly with Steve Hansen’s decision to keep him in the starting XV despite many in New Zealand calling for the opposite. This is clearly a star for the future and consequently needs the game time now, ahead of a World Cup in which he will likely play a big part. Having said that though, and in seeming contradiction to what we feel about McKenzie, in front of a very vocal home crowd we think that this is one area of the park that Tuculet will dominate for Argentina. All eyes will be on newcomer David Havili if he comes off the New Zealand bench for either McKenzie or one of the wingers, especially as the youngster boasts some pretty impressive skills of his own and has consistently turned heads in his performances with the Crusaders at Super Rugby level.

Our biggest concern for Argentina in this match is that although it is in front of a home crowd, tradition tends to see them running out of gas towards the end of the tournament much as they seem to do in the last quarter of every Test match. It must be immensely frustrating for Argentinian supporters, and we count ourselves amongst them even as neutrals, as this is a good team and they are playing at home. We hope that they can rally themselves for these last two fixtures and get the confidence they need to prepare themselves for a tough European tour in November. Unfortunately we can’t see them emerging the winners on Saturday, but Australia a week later should be firmly in their sights. However, to the business at hand tomorrow, we hope for a an even closer and edgier contest than the one we saw between these two in Round 3, but still expect to see New Zealand pull away comfortably in the last quarter by 18 points!

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!

And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed last weekend’s action:

https://therugbylineout.com/tvinternet-game-listings/

With the dust settled on Round 3, the Rugby Championship seems to be entering an all too familiar pattern once we get to the halfway point in the tournament. New Zealand start to pull away dramatically on the table leaving their opponents in the dust, while the other three engage in a frantic scramble for position, with Australia and South Africa usually having the better odds leaving Argentina to pick up the crumbs. While this year seems to be no different there are still clearly some major differences from years gone by, which consequently make this year’s edition of the tournament such a fascinating contest.

New Zealand are clearly going through a major phase of experimentation which has led to mixed fortunes in terms of performances on the pitch. Sure they’ve won all their games, and with the possible exception of the Round 2 fixture against Australia, by a comfortable margin. However, at times they have looked less than their usual clinical selves. Just as we saw on the Lions Tour and on the road last November, there are some missing links in the All Blacks supposed invincibility. Nevertheless, before their opposition gets too excited there is still some mind-boggling depth and talent available to Coach Steve Hansen and the New Zealand selectors which means that although they may be vulnerable at times right now, by the time the World Cup rolls around in two years time the arsenal at their disposal will be alarming to say the least. Last weekend’s rumble with Argentina, left us once more with egg all over our faces in predicting the scoreline when it came to New Zealand matches, as we had predicted a 32 point whitewash of Argentina by the Men in Black. However, we were delighted to have our crystal ball gazing turned on its head, as Argentina put in a fantastic 55 minutes of rugby but then failed to back themselves and consequently New Zealand, as they always seem to do, spotted the weaknesses and put in a ruthless final quarter. In doing so, they once more put on show some truly dazzling new talent in the shape of flanker Vaea Fifita. There was clearly a sense of deja vu watching the 25-year-old brushing a stunned Argentinian defense aside, akin to the great Jonah Lomu tossing English defenders aside like rag dolls at ninety miles an hour in the 1999 World Cup. Meanwhile winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, who for us was the find of 2015 for New Zealand, returned to the Test fold with a vengeance. And while debates rage in New Zealand around the readiness of fullback Damian McKenzie to make it at Test Level, we sit firmly in the camp that feels he needs the opportunities he is getting now. While he made some significant errors last Saturday, when he got it right there is no question that this player possesses some sublime ability. The question in our opinion is more about where to play McKenzie and how to use his considerable talents, than whether or not he is Test calibre yet.

In short, we have found some of the gloom and doom in the New Zealand media around the All Blacks performances so far this year rather bemusing. They are still for the most part mopping the floor with the opposition they face, albeit with difficulty at times, and boasting some talent both old and new that would make most Coaches and selectors feeling that they had died and gone to rugby heaven. In our opinion this year is all about experimentation with players and combinations for New Zealand. Expect next year to be all about consolidation and putting the finishing touches to a team that is likely once more to have everyone else quaking in their boots come the opening whistle of the Rugby World Cup in Japan. In the process New Zealand may occasionally trip up and, dare we say it lose the odd big Test, but are they still likely to remain the benchmark team going into the World Cup? Whoever you support we would be willing to bet you would probably have to answer yes to that question.

South Africa, as we feared they would, started to lose some of the momentum of their excellent start to the Test calendar this year. Life on the road has rarely been kind to the Springboks in recent years and the cracks once more started to show in Perth. This was the contest we were looking forward to the most last weekend, but instead found the Pumas/All Blacks clash to be the more enthralling of the two. Perhaps because both teams had so much to prove, a cautious game of rugby from both sides unfolded which consequently saw neither side able to play to their respective strengths, resulting in a less than satisfying draw. Don’t get us wrong, there were some great moments, Wallaby centre Kurtley Beale’s try was pure magic and it was great to see Springbok flanker Siya Kolisi cross the whitewash in his typical barnstorming manner. However, too many key players on both sides remained strangely quiet for much of the match and were rarely able to assert themselves. South Africa’s second half resurgence in our opinion was led by their incomparable flanker Jaco Kriel, who provides so much quiet leadership to this Springbok side and as a result his absence due to injury for this weekend’s crucial fixture against New Zealand, could well be a death-blow for the Springboks. Australia are still clearly emerging from the wreckage of the last few months and the turmoil created by the country’s Super Rugby crisis, but once more some exceptional players were strangely quiet and reluctant to really make a statement in a critical Test last weekend.

Lastly, we take our hats off to the men from Argentina, who last weekend managed to make our crystal ball gazing look rather amateurish. As regular readers of this blog know, as neutrals we are some of Argentina’s biggest supporters and consequently frustrated by the lack of results from what we consider is a potentially lethal Test entity. Argentina, despite their critics, came to the party and then some last weekend in New Plymouth and we thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Playing with poise, discipline and intent for the first fifty minutes they looked fantastic and there was even the hint of an upset to end all upsets. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and even though it was unlikely that they would ultimately have beaten New Zealand in their own backyard, the scoreline could have been so much closer had they just had the confidence to back themselves a bit more. For us the turning point in the match was on the 50th minute, when with New Zealand a man down, Argentina failed to believe in themselves and chose an easy kick at goal rather than kick for touch and go for the seven pointer. They had New Zealand under enormous pressure, and as everyone knows you don’t beat the All Blacks or even run them close with three pointers. Against New Zealand it’s all about getting across the whitewash, and Argentina will hopefully take this lesson to heart on the return fixture in Argentina as well as applying it to the Wallabies this weekend in Perth. All that aside however, one has to make special mention of the other find of the weekend alongside New Zealand’s Vaea Fifita – Pumas winger Emiliano Boffelli. In short – spectacular and given his astounding kicking abilities by the time of the World Cup expect to see this guy slotting drop goals from his own 22!

So given there is so much food for thought from last weekend, let’s have a look at this weekend’s fascinating matchups for two eagerly anticipated contests!

New Zealand vs South Africa
Saturday, September 16th
Albany

As we mentioned above, the loss for South Africa of their outstanding flanker Jaco Kriel has sadly put a whole different complexion on this match for us, but we still anticipate an epic match with no quarters given, as one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries is once again put on display. However, New Zealand at home and given the squad they have assembled for this fixture will be extremely difficult to beat. South Africa will have to dig deep and with the absence of Kriel and Whiteley, the Springboks biggest Test of the year may see them lacking much of the polish that has rightly given us so much to cheer about this year. We hope to be proven wrong, but the Springbok supporters amongst us are feeling more than just a little anxious about this one, with the term damage limitation, perhaps being foremost in our minds.

Two great forward packs will go head to head on Saturday, with an intriguing battle in the front rows. South Africa and New Zealand as a result of injuries have been forced to make major changes here. For the Springboks, Coenie Oosthuizen is replaced by Ruan Dreyer, while the All Black front row sees Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala start alongside experienced Hooker Dane Coles. Although Dreyer has had a good season with the Lions, we sadly feel that technically and discipline wise he is somewhat lacking especially in relation to Oosthuizen. Despite the lack of Test experience of the two New Zealand props we like the look of Laulala. However, we can’t help feeling that the contest between exceptional Springbok Hooker Malcolm Marx and New Zealand’s Dane Coles will be one of the highlights of the weekend. Meanwhile Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira is having an epic year, and consequently with Coles only just back from injury and the relative inexperience of his two props, we feel that South Africa should just have the edge here, provided Dreyer can put in the game of his career to date and keep his discipline and composure under pressure. However, if South Africa are struggling here come the final quarter, New Zealand’s bench should secure the killer punch in the shape of Wyatt Crockett and Codie Taylor, with the latter clearly having the ability to fill Coles’ enormous boots. The Springboks Steven Kitshoff can be a real game changer, but if significant damage has been done by the time he comes on, it will be difficult for him to stem the tide.

The second row contest should be the stuff of legends, and definitely in tune with the character of the traditional rivalry between these two teams. New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are without a shadow of a doubt the best in the business right now, requiring an enormous effort from South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert to keep them in check. The South African pair are more than up to the challenge and we are huge fans of Mostert, but he really needs to put in a massive performance on Saturday, while the intensity of the contest will seriously test Etzebeth’s cool and discipline under pressure, something which he has struggled with in the past and which we saw flashes of last weekend in Perth. If the South Africans can hold their own here for sixty minutes, then there is a chance that their bench could swing this contest in their favor in the shape of the exceptional Pieter-Steph du Toit and Lood de Jager. Du Toit has provided some spectacular impact for South Africa in the last two years, and the Springboks will be expecting a signficant contribution from the young lock in the final quarter. Nevertheless we expect New Zealand’s starting pair to get the better of an exceptionally tight contest, with some of the niggles involved ultimately causing Etzebeth to lose his calm and discipline as a result.

In the back rows, as we have already said the loss of Jaco Kriel is likely to be a huge hole to fill. Nevertheless South Africa will be packing some serious firepower in the shape of the incomparable Siya Kolisi and Jean-Luc Du Preez. Du Preez really made us sit up and take notice during the series against France, and despite being saddened by the loss of Kriel we are delighted to see the youngster get a well deserved starting spot, despite the magnitude of the challenge he faces. If he and Kolisi really click then New Zealand’s Sam Cane and Liam Squire are going to have their hands full. However, despite the raw talent of the two South Africans we feel the calm head and experience of New Zealand’s Sam Cane and explosive power of Squire should give New Zealand a slight edge in this contest. However, with the arrival of Ardie Savea as a replacement for New Zealand, whatever parity South Africa may achieve here is likely to be sorely tested. Savea is a bit of a conundrum for us, and as result we side with the view that he is more of an impact player at the moment than a starter. If you watch the game last week against Argentina where he was in the starting lineup, it was clear at times that his live wire, almost frantic style of play, is hard to fit into an overall strategy for a team from the outset. Once dominance has been established and secured Savea’s destructive unpredictability as a loose cannon can then prove devastatingly effective in the final quarter, but perhaps a potential liability in the opening three-quarters of a match. As a result we feel his place on the bench as opposed to the starting fifteen is the right call from Coach Steve Hansen.

At number 8, sadly it’s going to be all about New Zealand, plain and simple in the shape of Keiran Read. An exceptional Captain and player, Read is simply streets ahead of South African newcomer Uzair Cassiem, despite us being pleasantly surprised by some of his performances so far. There’s simply too much experience and outright rugby knowledge on Read’s shoulders, for Cassiem to do much more than try to keep him in sight for the course of the match, as opposed to asserting any kind of dominance.

In the halfbacks, once again we hand the battle to New Zealand. Injury has once more plagued South Africa here, with Ross Cronje out at scrum half and the mercurial Francois Hougaard in instead. While Cronje may not be the most exciting player on the planet we still prefer his sense of calm over Hougaard’s sometimes careless exuberance. Under pressure Hougaard can often implode and his decision-making and execution start to suffer. It’s a tough call as in his own right he can be an amazing player at times, but consistency does seem to be a concern. Elton Jantjies needs no introduction at fly half, and has consistently performed so far this year for the Springboks despite a rather invisible second half in Perth last weekend. What also concerned us in the second half from Jantjies against Australia was the tendency to revert to the aimless kicking and giving away of possession that has plagued South African sides over the last few years. If South Africa do that on Saturday, then New Zealand will end up running riot against them and exposing their suspect defences out wide. We don’t see anything on the South African bench to really address this should things start to go awry. New Zealand on the other hand have it all going on in this area of the game, both in the starting fifteen and on the bench. Aaron Smith is clearly in a league of his own at the moment, with perhaps only Ireland’s Conor Murray able to give him a run for his money. There has been much talk about All Black fly half Beauden Barrett of late, much of it negative. For us we see only two concerns. Firstly his lack of consistency in the goal kicking department. Like we say he is not a bad goal kicker and on his day can be outstanding, the problem of late is just a complete lack of consistency in this area of his game. Brilliant one match, and then unable to hit a barn door the next, this is clearly an issue for New Zealand. Like many we agree that this is surely the time to give Damian McKenzie the goal kicking duties, and allow Barrett to focus on his exceptional play making and game management abilities. Our second concern with Barrett would be an increasing lack of discipline when under pressure, making the case for removing some of this pressure by giving the goal kicking duties to McKenzie. However, even if Barrett is off the boil again, his replacement Lima Sopoaga has shown that he is more than capable of making amends. Add to this TJ Perenara off the bench for Smith and this contest is clearly in New Zealand’s favor.

It’s the centre pairings, that are perhaps causing the most vocal debates in this match. We are going to stick our necks out and say that South Africa actually have the edge here at least for the first sixty minutes, an advantage that will rapidly go out the window if they have not held their own and made it count, once the bench comes into play. A controversial call we know, but we just feel that New Zealand’s centre partnerships are just not firing at the moment. New Zealand will be delighted with the return of Ryan Crotty, as are we, as in our opinion he is clearly one of the best in the business. However, Crotty sadly seems prone to more than his fair share of injury this year, and we doubt that he will last the match. His partner Sonny Bill Williams, just hasn’t made us sit up and take notice this year, and as a result feel that South Africa’s Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel’s seeming indestructibility, speed and power are more than a match for the All Black pair. The Springbok duo can really light up a pitch, as well as being exceptionally difficult to bring down once they’ve built up a head of steam. Given the injury doubts around Crotty, we consequently hand this battle by the slimmest of margins to South Africa. However, if the Springbok pair have not established dominance by the time the bench comes into play then with the arrival of New Zealand’s Anton Liennert-Brown then it could turn into a very long afternoon for South Africa. Sadly in our opinion South Africa’s offering of Damian de Allende is no match for the elusive New Zealander.

In the backs, it’s once again all about New Zealand. We hate to admit it, but despite some question marks around All Black fullback Damian McKenzie, South Africa’s back three are likely to be found sorely lacking by comparison on Saturday. New Zealand’s offering on the wings has excitement and danger written all over it in the shape of Nehe Milner-Skudder and newcomer Rieko Ioane. The two All Blacks have gas, panache and flair in a league of their own and are simply leagues ahead of their South African counterparts Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule. We, despite a lot of views to the contrary in the South African press, have actually been pleasantly surprised by Raymond Rhule’s defensive abilities and give the guy some open space he is clearly a threat. However, the comparison between the All Black wing contingent and that of the Springboks is a bit like having a Lamborghini and Ferrari on one side and a Golf GTI and Audi TT on the other. Both are fun to drive, but one set is clearly more likely to be in the rear view mirrors for much of the time. At fullback, despite some of the controversy surrounding Damian McKenzie, we still feel the decision to have him in the All Black line up is the right call by Coach Steve Hansen. Sure he still has a lot to learn, but as witnessed in his own try and the one he set up for winger Nehe Milner-Skudder last weekend, he is an exceptionally dangerous and difficult player to contain. While we agree there are issues with his tactical kicking game, and some concerns about his abilities under the high ball, we feel these are all things he will master with continued exposure at this level. The big question mark is whether or not he will take over some of the goal kicking from Beauden Barrett, which in our opinion could be key on Saturday. While many in New Zealand rightly see the injured Jordi Barrett as New Zealand’s long-term solution to the fullback position there is no question that McKenzie has a role in this All Black team, it just remains to be determined in what capacity. South Africa’s Andries Coetzee is developing nicely into the role of fullback for the Springboks but will need to really capitalise on any mistakes McKenzie makes, and make the resulting pressure count if South Africa are to be even remotely competitive in the back line battles.

This is going to be a tough, physical contest with emotions on both sides running close to the boiling point in the best tradition of match ups between these legendary rivals. However, for us South Africa still look far too much like a work in progress, especially in the backs, for it to be anything other than a convincing All Black victory by the final whistle. South Africa will give it their all, and likely be competitive well into the final quarter. However, it’s the question marks around South Africa’s game management and back line ability which should dictate that New Zealand will be able to close the game out with some clinical flair in the last fifteen minutes. Should still be the game of the weekend, with New Zealand ultimately pulling away by 13 points at the end!

Australia vs Argentina
Saturday, September 16th
Canberra

Let’s face it, this is a great weekend for Test Rugby and this contest only looks set to round out some epic entertainment. Both sides have EVERYTHING to prove. Argentina were, against all odds, exceptionally competitive last weekend against New Zealand, and caused the All Blacks no end of headaches at times. Add to that the revelation that winger Emiliano Boffelli seems to be able to slot the ball between the posts from his backyard in Argentina and Australia will be well aware of the challenge the South Americans will present them with on Saturday in Canberra. Australia produced the Test of the Tournament so far in Dunedin last month, and as a result when this team fires it is going to be very hard to contain. In short, this should be a great match and one which we are eagerly looking forward to.

In the front rows, despite some significant progress made by Australia in the last few weeks, we still hand the battle to Argentina and a return to their characteristic scrum dominance of old. Pumas Hooker Agustin Creevy, put on one of his Captain Fantastic performances last weekend and expect more of the same this weekend. As he so often does he led his troops with his body and soul and provided the inspiration that is so key to whether or not his charges come to the party, something they did in no uncertain terms last weekend against New Zealand. We still think the front row partnership of Creevy, and props Lucas Paz and Nahuel Tetaz is a more effective unit than Australia’s Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu. However, we think Australia has solved many of their problems at Hooker with Tatafu Polota-Nau. The contest should be even with the Australians potentially being the more powerful of the two, but we just feel that under Creevy’s leadership Argentina should have the edge here.

In the second rows, we also just give the nod to Argentina in the shape of Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno, both of whom we rate highly. By the same token we have enormous faith in Australia’s Adam Coleman, and as regular readers know we rate him as one of Australia’s brightest prospects for the future in the mold of the great John Eales. However, his second row partner Rob Simmons selection has left us scratching our heads, especially as Coleman and Rory Arnold seem to work so effectively together. To add insult to injury Arnold doesn’t even make the bench and we are completely baffled as to why, and feel that Australia and Coach Michael Cheika are going to rue this decision on Saturday.

In the back rows, we also feel that Argentina can get the better of Australia. Much has been said of newcomer Ned Hanigan at flanker for Australia. Many have called him invisible but if you actually look at the statistics for last weekend’s match against South Africa it would appear he had a pretty busy afternoon. Consequently we reserve judgement, but by the same token he hasn’t really done anything to get our attention, even though his partner Michael Hooper has been outstanding in the last two Tests for Australia. For Argentina however, we just think the bruising ball carrying abilities and defensive attributes, especially at the breakdown if they can keep their disicipline, of the Pumas Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio are that much more dangerous and destructive. We may be wrong but we give Argentina the nod by a very small margin here.

At number eight, however, the balance swings back to Australia. Sean McMahon had an absolute blinder of a game in the second Test against New Zealand, and this is an exceptional player. However, like many in the Wallaby squad he seemed rather quiet last weekend, so if he shows up on Saturday like he did against New Zealand, Argentina’s Tomas Lezana may pale into insignificance. While Lezana is certainly an able player, we actually preferred the look of Benjamin Macome who we thought had an outstanding game against New Zealand, to the point where we were even starting to relax about the loss of Facundo Isa for the Pumas. However, Lezana although having plenty of talent is not quite the same calibre of McMahon.

In the halfbacks, it’s an even contest and one we can’t call. Both sets of halfbacks ooze talent but really need to click, something that they have trouble doing consistently. Argentina’s Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez can be masters of game management when the stars line up for them but we have yet to see this happen consistently this year. The same can be said for Australia’s Will Genia and Bernard Foley. Individually brilliant, with Genia producing one of the games of his career in the second Test against New Zealand, the Australian pair rarely asserted any kind of influence on proceedings against South Africa last weekend. However, we actually feel that Tomas Cubelli off the bench at scrum half is a stronger player than Australia’s Nick Phipps, plus Cubelli is more than familiar with Canberra as a surrounding, as he plays with the Brumbies. Impossible to call, but we think given the bench and if Argentina’s pair fire, Argentina could have the better day here.

In the centres, we fancy Australia’s chances. Since coming back from his time at Wasps in the English Premiership, Wallaby centre Kurtley Beale is on FIRE. Despite Australia’s problems at times this year, he has consistently stood out in every Test they have played. In short – brilliant and alongside the destructive force and power of Tevita Kuridrani, Australia have the clear edge here over the equally talented but less experienced Pumas duo of Jeronimo  De la Fuente and Matias Orlando. As brilliant as Samu Kerevi is for the Wallabies off the bench, he was exposed defensively in no uncertain terms against New Zealand, and if the Pumas are gaining any kind of momentum here, this could be a concern for Australia going into the final quarter.

However, in the backs, we are once more putting our money on Argentina. After his monster boot performance last weekend, we doubt many are surprised to see Emiliano Boffelli off the wing and in at fullback for the Pumas. Boffelli is all class and as usual Argentina produce one of the top ten most exciting newcomers of the year in this exceptionally capable player. Australia’s Israel Folau is a player of enormous pedigree and talent, but he seems to be all over the park in one Test for Australia and then strangely absent in the next – last week’s performance against the Springboks versus his performance in the second Test against New Zealand being a perfect example. Right now given the WOW factor surrounding Boffelli we give Argentina a better chance in the contest between the two. On the wings, we also feel that Argentina possess a bit more X-factor in the shape of Matias Moroni and Ramiro Moyano, with Manuel Montero packing a few more surprises up his sleeve off the bench. These are three big, fast and powerful men who will be difficult to contain. Henry Speight for Australia has definitely caused defences some serious problems so far this year, and for us Reece Hodge can be very effective if Australia are able to play to his strengths, as well as him being a strong defensive proposition. However, if Argentina are getting the upper hand here we feel their bench and any traction they have gained on the Australian defences should give them an advantage in this contest.

This should be a very tight and enthralling match between two very evenly placed and competitive teams. We think we may be wrong, but on paper we actually feel that Argentina are fielding the better unit, and as a result think they are more than in with a chance on this one. However, it is that inability to back themselves at times and lose the plot in the final quarter that prove such liabilities for them and negate any dominance they may have established in the first hour. Fortunately they seem to have got a handle on their discipline and their execution seems to have improved. The big question is can they hold it together for 80 minutes? Sadly we feel that despite many of the odds being in their favor on Saturday, that ability is just not there at the moment especially away from home. We think the Pumas could steal this by two points, but given home advantage are actually giving it to the Wallabies by two! Either way folks hold on to your hats and pints as this could be a real humdinger!

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!

And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed last weekend’s action:

https://therugbylineout.com/tvinternet-game-listings/

This weekend’s action is sure to have most of us glued to our TV screens especially the match between Australia and South Africa in Perth. Of all the teams, these two have given us the most food for thought. The horror show that was 2016 is clearly over for the Springboks, and the importance of that first win of the year on the road against Argentina cannot be understated for South Africa. Meanwhile the spectacle that unfolded in Dunedin between Australia and New Zealand in Round 2 was one which we will all be talking about for a long time to come. Given the fact that most people, ourselves included, had written off Australia before the match, the turnaround in the Wallabies’ fortunes in the space of a mere 7 days and on the road to boot was the stuff of legends. Full marks must go to their Coach Michael Cheika and the character that his charges showed a fortnight ago in Dunedin. Meanwhile Argentina, seem at sixes and sevens despite some obvious potential, but perhaps their biggest concern is a disciplinary issue that is crippling any chances they may have to be competitive.

The match between Australia and New Zealand in Dunedin was breathtaking and definitely one of the most memorable Test Matches we’ve seen for a long time. Australia came out all guns blazing and their opening three try blitz left most of us, who had predicted a whitewash by the Men in Black, with a healthy smattering of egg on our faces. It was brilliant, energetic attacking rugby from the Wallabies and they were playing as a unit as opposed to the individual flashes of brilliance we saw from Australian players in the second half of the opening match of the Rugby Championship between Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand were slightly out of sorts and their defensive structures were clearly battling to come to grips with Australia’s new-found sense of purpose, execution and intensity. Australia appeared to have completely reinvented themselves in the space of seven days, and as mentioned above, to do this on the road is quite an achievement. New Zealand once more looked rattled at times, and as a result were making errors we are simply not used to seeing while at the same time their defence looked alarmingly porous far too often. However, once more though the All Blacks demonstrated their remarkable ability to regroup in the final quarter, and as always their bench were able to deal the final hammer blows to close out a game that had produced some spectacular rugby from both sides. It’s this ability to finish, unlike any other Test side at the moment, which still makes New Zealand the benchmark team to beat. However, as we have seen on the Lions tour, last year in Chicago and in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship, New Zealand are clearly trying to shape the team they want for the 2019 World Cup – a process that is clearly not without its teething problems. Are they still the team to beat? Yes. Can they be beaten? It would seem on the evidence of the last twelve months – yes albeit with great difficulty. Don’t get us wrong we are huge fans of New Zealand, but it does make International Rugby that much more interesting if every time the All Blacks grace a pitch it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion as to who the winner will be, as it essentially has been since the 2011 World Cup.

In the other contest between South Africa and Argentina, the Springboks showed that the momentum since the series against France in June is clearly building and more importantly can be maintained when the team is on the road. Admittedly Argentina are struggling to define themselves at the moment, but South Africa played with purpose, cohesion and a focus that was clearly lacking in 2016. Despite the struggles South Africa went through last year, we never doubted for a moment that the country was not blessed with some truly impressive rugby talent. We always felt that once that talent was allowed to come to the fore and the politics plaguing South African rugby was put aside, then South Africa would once more become the powerhouse of International Rugby it has always been. Consequently we are delighted to see the Springbok jersey being worn with such pride and intent this year and more importantly producing the results that justify such beliefs. Argentina on the other hand are clearly struggling to map out their path to the 2019 World Cup. Like South Africa there is some remarkable rugby talent in Argentina, although it clearly doesn’t have as much depth in terms of a player base that South Africa has. However, since the last World Cup and the inclusion of an Argentinean franchise in Super Rugby, Argentina have struggled to turn their considerable prowess on paper into results on the pitch. Always competitive and a force to underestimate at your peril, Argentina just can’t seem to string a solid eighty minute performance together at the moment. Add to that their woeful disciplinary record, and despite the world-class brilliance of many of their players, it would appear that they are often playing with one hand tied behind their backs. We hope it changes soon as they still remain one of our favourite teams to watch, and one which can produce some breath-taking rugby when they click as a team.

So with that said, let’s look at the matchups this weekend for Round 3.

New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday, September 9th
New Plymouth

Despite some of the question marks around New Zealand at the moment, especially in defence, it is hard to see Argentina pulling off the kind of upset that Australia came so close to doing in Dunedin a fortnight ago. We have to admit to liking the Pumas team sheet for this match, especially up against perhaps the most experimental All Black side we’ve seen in a while. However, there is still enough star-studded power in the All Blacks side that will run out in New Plymouth to make life incredibly difficult for a Pumas side that would appear to have lost its way in the last year. Still as mentioned above, underestimate the South Americans at your peril and as we saw last year in this round of the Rugby Championship, Argentina certainly gave New Zealand a healthy scare in the first half. Whether they will be able to do so this year remains to be seen but they will clearly be up for the challenge.

Up front it’s clear that Argentina are not the force of old, and the All Black front row offering for Saturday’s clash should get the upper hand. Argentina’s front row of prop Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy and prop Lucas Noguera Paz is a solid and capable unit, but they clearly struggled against a rampant South African front row in the opening two fixtures of the Championship. New Zealand sees Hooker Dane Coles back to his best with props Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala a real force to be reckoned with. Moody has been superb so far in the Championship, and despite his lack of experience we really like the potential we see in Laulala. In the second rows, Sam Whitelock gets a much-needed break, being replaced by Luke Romano, but the indomitable Brodie Retallick remains. Retallick is simply in a class of his own and has been for quite a while now. Even though the jury is out for us on Romano, the mere presence of Retallick should cover for any shortcomings in his teammate. We do think although they’ll come off second best here, Argentina will be competitive. Even though he has had a quiet tournament so far, we are huge fans of the Pumas’ Guido Petti and his fellow second rower Matias Alemanno also brings much to the table for Argentina. In the back row although we were slightly surprised to see Sam Cane on the bench for New Zealand, we have to confess to being more than just a little excited about seeing Ardie Savea getting a start at 7. In our opinion he is one of the most destructive and unpredictable loose forwards in Test Rugby and Argentina are going to have to work overtime to keep him in check. His back row partner for us is a surprise in Vaea Fifita, who normally plays in the second row for the Hurricanes. As a result we can’t really say too much here. However, we have yet to see Argentina’s answer in the shape of Javier Ortega Desio and Pablo Matera really fire this year, and Matera has had more than his fair share of disciplinary discussions with referees. So despite the experimentation New Zealand should comfortably win the day here, especially when you have Kieran Read shoring everything up at number eight, even though we’ve heard great things about new Argentinian number eight Benjamin Macome.

The half backs see All Black scrum half Aaron Smith sit this match out, and TJ Perenara get the starting position, with Chiefs scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow on the bench. There is no question that Perenara is an exceptional player, but his penchant for trying to referee the game alongside his scrum half duties has meant that he sometimes doesn’t have the overall view of the game and opportunities that can be created that Smith does, as he focuses too much on the immediate action in front of him. Meanwhile Kerr-Barlow has some real skill but struggles with consistency and the kind of game management needed at this level – attributes that will only improve with continued exposure. However, Beauden Barrett remains for New Zealand at flyhalf and now he seems to have found his goalkicking boots again, it would seem that this contest should sit firmly in New Zealand’s favour. Tomas Cubelli is Argentina’s scrum half, and in a match where the slightest mistake will cost you dearly, we feel his slightly calmer albeit more conservative approach to the game is a wise choice, leaving Martin Landajo to come in for impact later in the match. Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez makes his return but really needs to bring both his vision and accuracy back to the game, two qualities that we haven’t really seen from him that much this year.

In the back five we are absolutely ecstatic to see the return of winger Nehe Milner-Skudder into the starting fifteen. Having had the privilege of watching this exceptionally talented player in action at the last World Cup we can’t wait to see him in action on Saturday, and hope to see much more of this player during Ben Smith’s sabbatical. We are also happy to see Anton Lienert-Brown get a start at centre, though New Zealand will feel the loss of Ryan Crotty to injury. We have to confess to not being overly impressed with Lienert-Brown’s centre partner Sonny Bill Williams and have seen very little from him so far this year that justifies Coach Steve Hansen’s continued reliance on him. We’re not saying he’s a bad player, we just don’t think he is that creative and rather one-dimensional, making him much easier to read than his elusive partner Lienert-Brown. Still it would seem that New Zealand are struggling to find a long-term centre pairing, particularly if injuries continue to plague the exceptional Ryan Crotty. Israel Dagg makes a return to the wing while Damian McKenzie shores up the fort at fullback. We have to share the reservations that many in New Zealand seem to have regarding Damian McKenzie. He is utterly outstanding make no mistake, and on attack almost impossible to stop once he has built up a head of steam coupled with the fact he has a fantastic almost cat-like sense of where players are around him. However, we’re just not convinced he is Test level yet, but by the same token how is he going to become so without these kind of opportunities? Clearly a conundrum, but as a result a big performance will be expected from the youngster on Saturday to put such doubts to rest. Argentina bring their usual quality and excitement to the back five, particularly in the shape of winger Emiliano Boffelli and a welcome return of his teammate Santiago Cordero on the opposite wing. These two provide skill and speed all over the park, though Cordero’s star has dipped in relation to Boffelli’s meteoric rise this year. Matias Moroni is great value for money at centre, but his partner Jeronimo de la Fuente has yet to really stand out. Lastly the battle between the experienced head of Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet and New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie should be fascinating as both players can be electric with ball in hand, though we favor McKenzie to provide more of the surprises on Saturday. Argentina’s back line has danger written all over it, but the superb combination of youth, experience and extraordinary talent that New Zealand are boasting should see them dominate the metres made on Saturday.

We would love to see a tight contest, but sadly in Argentina’s current condition and the fact they are a long way from home, we can’t help feeling it is going to be a long and uncomfortable day in the office for Argentina. Their discipline should be better with wild card second rower and hot head Tomas Lavanini out of the equation, but experimentation aside, they are going up against a very skilled All Black side which if all its component parts click should be able to blast holes in a fractured Pumas defence from all over the park. Bring New Zealand’s bench into the equation and the deal should be sealed. Argentina to put up a good fight but ultimately New Zealand to run away with it by 32 points!

Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, September 9th
Perth

If Australia play anywhere near like they did a fortnight ago in Dunedin, South Africa will be put to their first major Test of 2017. Australia put in a blinder of a performance in the second round which made most of us eat humble pie, fortunately with a great deal of relish, as it was great to see Australia bounce back onto the world stage with a vengeance after the misery and rot that seemed to grip Australian rugby as a whole since the England tour to Australia last year. If Australia put in the kind of performance they put up against the All Blacks in Round 2, we will really get to see if the enormous progress South Africa has made this year is based on a solid foundation. South Africa really need to hold their own in what should be a serious challenge, with both sides having absolutely everything to prove in terms of where they are in the pecking order of International Test Rugby. This is clearly the game of the weekend, and one of the most eagerly anticipated match-ups of the tournament after Australia’s remarkable transformation a fortnight ago.

Despite a better showing at scrum time from Australia in Round 2, we still can’t help feeling that this is still a problem area for them, whereas for South Africa it is one of the defining features of their resurgence this year. The Springbok front row of props Tendai Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen, with the exceptional Malcolm Marx at Hooker in the middle is a force to be reckoned with and Australia are going to struggle on Saturday to match up to the power and clinical efficiency of these three.  The only side that can in our opinion challenge South African dominance in this aspect of the game in this tournament is New Zealand. Australia is getting better but there is still too much work to be done to really match up to this South African trio, so we expect to see the Springboks dictating conditions in this department on Saturday.  However, one area we really were impressed by last week was Australia’s efforts in the second row. While they couldn’t match up to New Zealand’s remarkable partnership of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, Australia looked stronger here than they have in the past and we thought Wallaby lock Rory Arnold was one of the unsung heroes of Australia’s efforts in Round 2. Pair him up with the outstanding Adam Coleman, and Australia are clearly going to give as good as they get against South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit. We still favor the Springbok duo but it’s going to be quite the contest here. In the back row it’s South Africa all the way for us. Flankers Siya Kolisi and Jaco Kriel are already well on their way to taking this tournament by storm, and quite frankly we expect to see them run rings around Australia’s Ned Hanigan and Michael Hooper. Hooper had a solid game in Round 2, but as we saw in Round 1, put him under pressure and cracks appear while Hanigan has been almost invisible so far. However, at number eight Australia has a clear advantage in Sean McMahon who played out of his skin in the second match against New Zealand. We have always been a quiet fan of the Wallaby number eight and feel there are some very big performances to come from this gentleman as we head towards the World Cup, and he rewarded our confidence in his abilities a fortnight ago in no uncertain terms. His Springbok opposite Uzair Cassiem has pleasantly surprised us, but to contain a guy like McMahon we would much rather have seen Jean-Luc du Preez get the starting number eight berth, instead of getting a bench spot. However, overall we just feel that South Africa are going to dominate forward play in this match as the traditional ‘smash and bash’ Springbok forward game has given way to a much more mobile and intelligent approach, whilst still keeping many of the physical attributes that have always been associated with Springbok rugby.

In the half backs, we actually give Australia the edge perhaps to the surprise of some. If you watched the way Genia turned up for the Wallabies in the second round against New Zealand then you’ll understand our bias. The Australian scrum half was utterly outstanding and one of the key components in the Wallabies remarkable turnaround. South Africa’s Ross Cronje is a competent and skilled player, but unlike Genia is still growing into the role at Test level, coupled with a much more conservative approach. Elton Jantjies has been excellent for South Africa this year at fly half, and is clearly the way forward for South Africa in this position as they build to the World Cup, however Bernard Foley is still in our opinion an exceptionally dangerous and fearless player. If he had brought his goalkicking boots with him a fortnight ago, then there would be everything to play for in the third Bledisloe Cup match in October. As readers of this blog know we are big fans of Foley and feel he is one of Australia’s strongest assets, especially as he seems to pop up all over the park, much more so than Jantjies. South Africa have a great platform in their half back partnership, but the sheer experience and unpredictability of the Australian duo give the Wallabies the clear edge here.

In the backs, after what we saw a fortnight ago from Australia, then we hand the contest to Australia. In the centres, Tevita Kuridrani and Kurtley Beale had a huge game for Australia. South Africa’s response in Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel make for worthy and exciting opponents, but they’ll be hard pressed to match the physicality of Kuridrani and the X-factor of Beale. On the wings we also think that this is the first real defensive test for South Africa’s Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan, with Australia’s Reece Hodge and Henry Speight providing plenty of explosive and powerful running for Australia to keep the South African pair more than just a little busy. In the fullback position Israel Folau was a constant source of excellence for the Wallabies a fortnight ago in Dunedin, and expect more of the same in Perth. Springbok fullback Andries Coetzee has consistently made us sit up and take notice this year, but he simply hasn’t as yet got the pedigree and experience of Folau, especially when the Australian is on song which at the moment he very much appears to be.

This is going to be a contest of South African forward dominance against the speed, power, and vision of Australia’s backs. For us the key linchpin of this match is going to be at 9 and 10. If Australia, as we suspect, get the upper hand here it will be up to the South African forwards to simply suffocate any creativity that Genia and Foley can conjure up. If neither side has created any kind of dominance on the scoreboard after the first hour, then the game could go either way as a mixed bag in terms of the benches from both sides could make it anybody’s game, with South Africa perhaps having the slight edge. However, despite Genia and company’s genius at times, we still hold that this South African side is the more settled of the two especially from 1-7, and a pair of cool heads at 9 and 10. It’s the combination of the power and mobility of the South African forwards, coupled with some safe play from the Springbok half backs that should ultimately get the better of Australia’s creativity and unpredictability. Either way an epic contest should be in store with South Africa just edging it by two points!

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!

And as always head over to our TV listings page for video highlights if you missed the first two rounds of the tournament:

https://therugbylineout.com/tvinternet-game-listings/

There were thrills aplenty on hand as this year’s Rugby Championship got underway with New Zealand and South Africa having plenty to shout about. Australia meanwhile were left staring into the abyss not helped by the fact that most of their players would have trouble figuring out which letter of the alphabet the word defence starts with let alone spell it. Argentina showed promise but as usual their execution and discipline let them down too many times, as well as the absence of one of last year’s best players, Facundo Isa, was there for all to see.

New Zealand completely destroyed Australia in the first 50 minutes, running in a score of 54-6. However, despite the emphatic scoreline, they will surely be asking themselves some very uncomfortable questions about how they let such a woeful Australian side back into the match with four unanswered tries in the space of 15 minutes, even if the fourth try was marginal at best in terms of a refereeing decision. New Zealand were spectacular in the first 50 minutes by which time they had got the job done. Whether or not they then took their foot off the gas will remain a subject for debate long after this tournament closes. However, All Black Coach Steve Hansen was clearly displeased by their performance in the last quarter of the match as they looked distinctly sloppy at times. Australia were so bad in the first half and New Zealand so unfocused in the final twenty that it was hard to really judge where the All Blacks are at. There were certainly questions raised about New Zealand’s supposed invincibility during the Lions Tour, but the Wallabies in their current shape were not the side to test out whether or not such vulnerabilities had really been addressed. New Zealand will be happy with the win which was emphatic, but concerned about the concentration lapses in the second half. Brilliant in the first 50 minutes, but decidedly average and almost unsure of themselves in the final 30 is not something we’re used to writing about in terms of New Zealand. No doubt many of these questions are likely to be addressed and resolved once and for all this Saturday in Dunedin.

Australia have little if anything to get excited about from the proceedings in Sydney. That first half was one of the worst displays of defensive rugby we have ever had the misfortune of witnessing. Australia did come back in the second half but mainly because New Zealand appeared to rest on their laurels and take the rest of the night off. As many have said Australia’s moments of good fortune in the second half arose from All Black mistakes and individual efforts from Wallaby players, most notably Kurtley Beale, Tevita Kuridrani and Israel Folau. There wasn’t much of a team effort going on, and the sight of All Black flyhalf Beauden Barrett effortlessly ripping a bobbling ball out of the normally steadfast Michael Hooper’s arms was an image that summed up the dark place the Wallabies find themselves in at the moment.

South Africa proved that the form shown in the series against France in June, was continuing to build as they dismantled a strong but ineffective and error strewn Pumas side. The forward effort from South Africa in Port Elizabeth was immense, but despite its physical prowess it showed some real intelligence and ability to create and use space rather than just bash the opposition into submission as in the past. The current Springbok forward pack is exceptionally powerful, fast and highly mobile. On top of that South Africa made mincemeat for the most part out of the much vaunted Pumas scrum while dominating the lineouts and making Argentina’s dangerous second row seem almost nonexistent. The Springbok half back partnership was steadfast and reliable and controlled the game well, while their backs were electric, and the centre partnership of Jesse Kriel and Jan Serfontein made some excellent inroads into a stretched Pumas defence. In short, it was a quality Springbok performance from start to finish. Argentina came to the party make no mistake and the tries by Landajo and Boffelli were a joy to watch, and showed once more that if you allow the Pumas into any kind of space then magic is in the air. However, there is no getting away from the fact that Argentina made far too many errors, and fly half Nicholas Sanchez was clearly way off the boil both in terms of game management and goal kicking. There was plenty of passion from the Pumas but a few key players simply did not have the game their team needed them to have.

Australia face another painful schooling from the All Blacks at the House of Pain in Dunedin this Saturday, while South Africa make the trek to Argentina where they hope to shake off their seeming inability to perform well away from home – something a Pumas side with everything to prove will be keenly aware of.

New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 26
Dunedin

Australia somehow desperately need to prove to the world that the current Wallabies side has the ability to make some inroads at the World Cup in two years time, however, Dunedin and an All Black team keen to answer some niggling questions about their current structure and form, are neither the place or team to do it against. Consequently and sadly for the Wallabies we fully expect Dunedin to live up to its nickname of the House of Pain.

On thing New Zealand are unlikely to lose much sleep over is the battle of the front rows, even without the services of Owen Franks who made such an impact last Saturday in Sydney. Dunedin sees the return of the exceptional Dane Coles at Hooker and the ever reliable Joe Moody continues to man the fort at loosehead prop. The only real question mark is Nepo Laulala at tighthead for the All Blacks. Nevertheless, the Wallaby front row looks so weak by comparison, and Laulala it should be pointed out does have four Test caps to his name already, that we can see little other than complete dominance by New Zealand here. The Australian scrum got pushed around in Sydney last week and with Hooker Stephen Moore’s lineout throwing erratic to say the least, then it is likely to be a long day at the coal face for Australia’s front three with New Zealand benefitting from their pain and suffering. Meanwhile in the second row, despite Wallaby lock Adam Coleman’s best efforts at being one of the few things to be excited about in this Wallaby lineup, New Zealand are likely to walk all over Australia in the shape of the incomparable duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. Retallick in particular was a source of constant misery for the Wallabies last Saturday. We simply don’t rate Rob Simmons for Australia who is clearly light years beyond his sell by date and feel that Coleman is going to have to do the work of two in Dunedin. Australia’s agony is set to continue in the back row as New Zealand’s Liam Squire, who had a blinder of a game last weekend at flanker, and his back row partner Sam Cane take on a completely lacklustre Michael Hooper and Ned Hanigan. As mentioned above the sight of All Black fly half Beauden Barrett ripping the ball at speed out of Hooper’s flailing arms last weekend sums up the Wallabies woes in this part of the field. We don’t think that Australian number eight Sean McMahon is a bad player it’s just that he is simply no match for New Zealand’s Kieran Read, who has a wealth of Test experience and the knowledge it brings behind him. In short the forward aspect of Saturday’s game will be all about the Men in Black.

In the halfbacks we didn’t get too excited about Australia’s performance in Sydney with scrum half Will Genia just not having his customary snap and spark of days gone by, and his replacement Nick Phipps just doesn’t cut it for us. Bernard Foley is a good player but he very rarely if at all, took control of the game in Sydney and despite a reliable boot for goalkicking duties did little to really spark the Wallabies into action. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Beauden Barret by comparison were everywhere on Saturday and certainly for the first 50 minutes completely controlled the pace and energy of the game. Smith’s decision-making at scrum half was superb whilst Barrett was a tactical genius as well as wrong footing Wallaby defences on his own all over the park. Both however did seem to take their foot off the gas slightly in the last quarter and TJ Perenara failed to really get New Zealand back into the proceedings after he replaced Smith. Nevertheless when on song as we saw in New Zealand’s first 50 points in Sydney last Saturday, the two New Zealanders are in a league of their own and something Genia and Foley are unlikely to be able to match up to especially away from home. So once again expect New Zealand to be conducting the orchestra in this aspect of the game in Dunedin.

In the backs, New Zealand’s offering was just sublime last Saturday. Winger Rieko Ioane proved he was no flash in the pan, running in two superb tries of his own. While he may not have the brute force of Julian Savea he clearly has a turn of pace and elusiveness that is going to cause him to be a nightmare for defences to read as New Zealand builds towards the World Cup. His opposite number, the veteran Ben Smith put in his traditional vintage performance with a fine try of his own and New Zealand will sorely miss his presence after this match as he takes a sabbatical. Fullback Damian McKenzie embraced his first Test start with vigor and was absolutely outstanding so expect plenty more in the fireworks department from this magician in Dunedin. Centre Ryan Crotty had a huge impact in the match and is clearly one of the best in the business right now. His partner Sonny Bill Williams made an impressive return to the jersey after his Lions red card mishap, however, we were still not convinced he is the way forward for New Zealand in the long-term at centre. Australia meanwhile had little to cheer about especially in defence. Centre Samu Kerevi had a shocker of a game, especially in defence and doesn’t even make the bench this week. There is some hope for Australia as they see the return of Dane Haylett-Petty on the wing, someone who can really provide some spark to Australia’s attack.  Henry Speight looked good on the opposite wing but again was found wanting in defence at times. Coach Michael Cheika is rewarding centres Kurtley Beale and Tevita Kuridrani for their performances last weekend, as they both start, and as individual playmakers they did manage to put some lustre back into Australia’s performance last week. Israel Folau also made an important contribution on his own last weekend and expect more of the same. However, as a group unless these five really gel it is unlikely that despite their individual talents they will be able to change the fundamental problems inherent in Australia’s performance as a team last weekend. In short, New Zealand boast all the class and vision and know how to use it in their offering from 11-15. Australia may have some brilliant individuals but not much of a platform to enable them to perform effectively. New Zealand are likely to be much more focused for the full eighty minutes than in Sydney and dominate the running game at Australia’s expense.

New Zealand’s bench once more looks the stronger of the two and more likely to make an impact, especially with names like Ardie Savea, Anton Lienert-Brown and Codie Taylor in the mix. New Zealand are unlikely to fall asleep at the wheel like they did in Sydney and as a result in front of a passionate crowd in Dunedin, it looks like it is going to be another dominant display from the New Zealanders. The All Blacks at home to run away with it for the full eighty minutes this time by 26 points!

Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 26
Salta

From a Springbok perspective there was a lot to cheer about as a packed Port Elizabeth stadium saw South Africa put in a clinical and effective display against a passionate but ultimately error strewn Pumas side. South Africa are clearly out of the nightmare known as 2016 and a rebuilding process is clearly bearing fruit. They were better organised, infinitely better disciplined and their execution across the park was watertight. When the Pumas managed to click they looked a real threat, the problem was they were only able to do this in short bursts and several of their key players were simply not putting in the kinds of performances we have come to expect. The result is the Argentinian line up sees a brace of changes for this match while South Africa see only one.

The once dominant Argentinian scrum clearly came out worse for wear last weekend in Port Elizabeth against a rock solid Springbok platform. Springbok Hooker Malcolm Marx continues to make the rugby world sit up and take notice and last weekend was no exception. We were very pleasantly surprised by a monumental effort from his two props Coenie Oosthuizen and Tendai Mtawarira.  Mtawarira was immense both in the scrum and with ball in hand and Oosthuizen clearly had the better of his Pumas counterparts. With no change to these three this weekend expect more of the same and even with Ramiro Herrera back alongside Captain Fantastic and Hooker Agustin Creevy for the Pumas we still expect to see the South Americans struggle to contain the Springbok front three. The Pumas duo of Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti, normally such a threat in the second row, were strangely quiet in Port Elizabeth, so much so that Petti doesn’t even make the bench this weekend in Salta. While Lavanini stays Petti is replaced by another reliable figure in the shape of Matias Alemanno. However, despite the pedigree of these two and on home soil to boot they are still going to be hard pressed to keep South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and the exceptional Franco Mostert in check. In the back row, Argentina are clearly struggling to find some answers. While Flanker Pablo Matera is a proven commodity he too was strangely quiet last weekend except towards the end of the match, and Leonardo Senatore at number eight was clearly past his best. We like the look of Tomas Lezana but for now he is still too green especially up against the powerhouse that is Jaco Kriel for South Africa. Kriel allied to Siya Kolisi was devastating on Saturday in Port Elizabeth and expect these two to dominate once more for South Africa this Saturday. We liked the look of new Springbok number 8 Uzair Cassiem despite our initial reservations and feel he merits the second consecutive start he has been awarded. Argentina are clearly struggling to find the right fit for their back three with the departure of the exceptional Facundo Isa. Although Manuel Leguizamon comes in for the injured Senatore, doubts remain about his longevity in this Pumas squad despite the considerable presence and solidarity he brings to the squad. South Africa’s forward pack is simply so strong and Argentina’s still clearly a work in progress that even at home we still expect to see the Springboks dominate the contest here.

At fly half we have to confess to being very disappointed in Puma fly half Nicholas Sanchez’s performance last weekend. Normally the Argentine 10 is a reliable source of points and a boot to put his team into space. Neither really happened much at all last weekend, and is surely a concern for the Pumas. This week sees Sanchez move to the bench and veteran Juan Martin ‘the Magician’ Hernandez take over the number 10 shirt. When this player is on form he really can do something special for his team, but like many of his countrymen he has good days and bad days. Scrum half Martin Landajo despite a try that showed off some dazzling footballing skills, finds himself on the bench and the slightly more conservative Tomas Cubelli take his place. Cubelli seems to have a calmer head under pressure than Landajo despite not being nearly as impressive with ball in hand. South Africa make one change as the injured scrum half Ross Cronje makes way for Francois Hougaard. We still reserve judgement on Hougaard, although he makes quick decisions they are not always the smartest and feel under pressure Cubelli could actually have the edge over the South African here. Elton Jantjies was solid last weekend and expect more of the same but has yet to be in a winning Springbok side on the road. Consequently we actually hand the Argentines the battle of the halfbacks in Salta, especially given the benches in this area of the game.

Get their execution right and we still hold that the Pumas set of backs is more than a match for their Springbok counterparts especially on home soil. Winger Emiliano Boffelli had a good game last weekend in Port Elizabeth, our only criticism being some soft defence on the Springbok try by Raymond Rhule. On home ground we still hold that the Argentine centres and wingers are bigger, meaner and faster, especially in space, than their Springbok counterparts. This is in no disrespect to the Springboks especially the centre pairing of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel which clearly got the better of the perceived advantage we feel the Pumas have in this part of the park last weekend. Add to that the Springbok pair being much better at hanging on to the ball and able to go to ground when needed. However, despite some real razzle dazzle from Springbok wingers Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan who both scored excellent tries last weekend, questions still remain for us about their defensive capabilities especially when matched up against the size of their Argentine counterparts. We have to admit to being pleasantly surprised at some strong tackling from Rhule at times last weekend, but until we see the results of this weekend, the jury is still out for us on the Springbok pair, especially as away from home they are going to be put under immense pressure from this Pumas back line. At fullback it’s an even contest between the excellent Andries Coetzee for South Africa and Joaquin Tuculet for the Pumas. Tuculet looked fantastic with ball in hand at times last Saturday and expect more of the same, but then so did Coetzee allied to some superb defence to the point we actually rate the Springbok slightly higher of the two. Although we feel that the Pumas set of backs could really turn this game upside down in Salta on Saturday, we can’t help feeling that this all dominant Springbok pack will effectively smother any chance the Pumas have to cut their backs loose especially if last weekend’s performance was anything to go by.

Once more we feel that Argentina, especially at home, has the match clinching bench. If the Pumas are in it with a points difference of a converted try or less going into the last 15 minutes, then at home this Pumas bench could swing the match Argentina’s way as a group of relatively untested Springbok replacements struggle to find their footing under pressure and away from home. However, the problem is we just can’t see the starting Springbok XV let the match get to this point. Consequently it is likely to be a lot tougher contest than the match in Port Elizabeth but South Africa should get over their notoriously poor performances on the road of last year and seal a tight and fiercely contested match by 3 points! Argentina will have everything to prove and South Africa will have their first truly nail biting test of character of 2017.

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!

It’s Rugby Championship time again and in this second iteration of the tournament since the 2015 World Cup, it is likely to be a much closer competition than what we saw last year. South Africa failed to show up in 2016, and Argentina struggled to translate their World Cup form and first year in Super Rugby into anything tangible on the field. Meanwhile New Zealand simply breezed through the opposition while the downward slide of Australia was there for all to see. This year a much different prospect seems in the mix despite their being a myriad of questions surrounding all four participating countries.

New Zealand are still the benchmark team in the tournament and clear favourites to lift the trophy when the tournament draws to a close in early October. However, they are less likely to have things all their own way this year. Despite the numerous controversies surrounding the recent Lions tour to New Zealand, particularly in terms of refereeing decisions, it showed that the seeming invincibility of the All Black machine is no longer a given. In the last two Tests of the series New Zealand were under enormous pressure and clearly looked vulnerable at times, something we simply haven’t been used to seeing from them for a very long time.

Although we doubt very much that Australia or Argentina will derail the All Black juggernaut, South Africa in the final match of the tournament at home in Cape Town could be the side to upset New Zealand’s apple cart, especially if they have had a good tournament leading up to this penultimate fixture. South Africa have emerged from a disastrous 2016 which saw them reach an all time low, looking meaner, fitter and faster on and off the ball. The Lions heroics in this year’s Super Rugby need little or no introduction, and many of those players are featuring in the Springbok lineup. However, there still remain question marks around the coaching setup despite South Africa’s successes against France in June as well as continued speculation as to how much of the team selection is affected by political interference. Nevertheless, especially at home South Africa are going to be a very tough nut to crack this year and are clearly rebuilding with some success.

Argentina once more on paper promise plenty, but there is a legitimate concern that they will yet again fail to deliver on that promise. A concern that has been given extra weight by the fact that once more their Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares had yet another disappointing season. Furthermore, add to this that their star player of 2016, back rower Facundo Isa, will no longer be eligible for Pumas colors as he has gone to ply his trade in France. Nevertheless, give Argentina space and they can be lethal allied to a gritty and very physical forward pack. Although they may not have the scrum dominance they have had in past years, they still possess an exceptionally dangerous second row and back row especially in the loose. Underestimate the South Americans at your peril regardless of their Super Rugby form.

Australia meanwhile languor in the depths of a rugby crisis that is crippling the sport at a national level. The truly dismal performance of Australian teams in this year’s Super Rugby, coupled to a dreadful June series of which the loss to Scotland in Sydney represented the ultimate low point, has left Australian supporters with very little if anything to cheer about. Quite simply Australian rugby is not in a good place right now which will make it hard for the Wallabies to focus on the job at hand in this Rugby Championship. We doubt it is permanent, but the rot that has set in since the England tour to Australia last year has clearly reached its peak with more questions than answers as to how Australia is to emerge and solidify its building process for the next World Cup. Australia has a proud rugby tradition and can produce players of exceptional skill and ability, however, for the moment the ship is rudderless and in very stormy seas making it hard for us to see Australia being a real competitive force in this year’s Rugby Championship.

And so to the business at hand our musings on the head to head clashes about to take place this weekend.

Australia vs New Zealand
Saturday, August 19th
Sydney

Australia at home, despite the dark clouds hanging over Australian rugby, is always a daunting prospect and Saturday should be no different. However, to take on an All Black side smarting from an inconclusive Lions series and looking to get themselves back to their dominant best, is a task few teams would want to take on, especially a team in the depths of a confidence crisis. Looking at New Zealand’s team sheet for Saturday’s dustup, the Wallabies must surely be feeling more than just a little anxious. If the Wallabies find their long-lost groove on Saturday under such daunting circumstances then Coach Michael Cheika and his charges will have pulled off a transformation of almost mythical proportions. We hope he can but can’t help feeling that at the moment given the circumstances the odds are stacked against him.

Up front Australia is clearly going to battle. As Hooker Stephen Moore prepares to take his bow for the Wallabies, the Australian scrum just looks weak coupled to Moore’s erratic form at lineout time. The All Blacks by comparison even without the exceptional abilities of Hooker and “backup winger” Dane Coles, look the business. Props Joe Moody and Owen Franks looked solid against the Lions and boast a wealth of experience. Meanwhile Hooker Codie Taylor is rapidly learning how to fill the enormous shoes of Dane Coles. He was excellent in the Lions series and also is proving a very reliable figure when it comes to the lineout. Consequently, New Zealand should comfortably dominate the front row battle on Saturday. In the second rows there is simply no contest. The All Black duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are the most devastatingly effective second row partnership in Test rugby right now, and we just can’t see Australia’s Adam Coleman and Rory Arnold being able to upset that hierarchy. However, expect some fireworks from Australia’s Coleman, as in our opinion he was one of the few real standout Australian players of 2016, and despite a weak June series, we fully expect him to play to the level that tips him to be one of Australia’s rising stars of the future. In the back row the contest evens out slightly. Many have questioned the omission of All Black flanker Jerome Kaino, with Liam Squire taking his place. In our opinion it’s the right call by Coach Steve Hansen. Kaino is no longer the player he used to be, and New Zealand need to start to build to the World Cup now, and Squire is the perfect player to do so. Line him up alongside Sam Cane who now boasts some solid Test experience and this will be a hard unit for Australia’s duo of  newcomer Ned Hanigan and the irrepressible veteran Michael Hooper to get the better of. However, Australia will be competitive here make no mistake, allied to the figure of Sean McMahon at number eight who is always problematic for opposition defences. New Zealand Captain and number eight Kieran Reid should nevertheless ensure that the skill set and experience available to New Zealand see them achieve overall forward dominance in Sydney.

In the halfbacks, with Beauden Barrett’s form in a league of its own for New Zealand, alongside Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara at scrum half, it is going to be really hard for Australia to get any kind of an edge here. The only real chink in the All Blacks armor in this department is Barrett’s goal kicking as seen in the recent Lions tour. He’s not a bad goal kicker – he’s just not consistent. However, with Damian McKenzie thrown into the mix backing up the kicking duties at fullback for New Zealand then this should be less of a concern. Australia’s pair of Bernard Foley at flyhalf and Will Genia in the scrum half position are no slackers and are a really solid unit on their own, despite some saying that Genia has passed his sell by date. Bernard Foley for us is one of Test rugby’s most underrated players, and we steadfastly remain big fans of the Wallaby number 10. Foley’s biggest problem is that, despite a phenomenal work rate and a keen eye for space and opportunity coupled with a willingness to throw himself into the fray with no fear whatsoever, the rest of his team often expects him to singlehandedly perform miracles but are not there in support after some stellar work from the talented fly half. Despite the talent of the Wallaby pair it will be hard for them to get the better of New Zealand’s offering here, especially if Barrett starts popping up all over the field.

In the backs, we have to confess to being slightly puzzled by the selections here, while at the same time feeling some empathy for Coach Michael Cheika not having the outstanding winger Dane Haylett-Petty available due to injury. We suppose that Cheika is looking for impact off the bench, hence centre Tevita Kuridrani and the outstanding utility back Reece Hodge sitting out the starting fifteen as substitutes. However, if as we suspect Australia are chasing the game at this point as talented as these two are they are unlikely to swing the balance. It’s such a crucial opening game we are surprised that Kuridrani and Hodge are not starting as they are more likely to help stem the All Black tide in defence as well as make a statement of their own on attack. The centre pairing of Kurtley Beale and Samu Kerevi have the potential to bring plenty of surprise and power to Australia’s attacking efforts, and Kerevi in particular has really impressed us even in these dark times for the Wallabies.  New Zealand bring some changes as well but they are still working with some tried and tested commodities, so much so that Australia are going to struggle to keep these five men in black in check added to some phenomenal replacements. Damian McKenzie is perhaps the first eye opener for New Zealand at fullback. However, he needs no introduction and is a truly remarkable player despite his diminutive size. Despite his supposed physical disadvantage he appears utterly fearless in the contact areas and packs a boot that ensures that the ball will be getting some healthy and reliable mileage around the park and between the posts on Saturday. In short he may not have much Test experience to his name, but this is a player who deserves the exposure and in our opinion is without doubt one of the All Blacks biggest smoking guns. Rieko Ioane on the wing also lacks in experience but proved lethal in the opening exchanges of the Lions tour, though was contained as the series wore on. Ryan Crotty at centre and Ben Smith on the wing are two of the game’s finest and possess a rugby intelligence that the Wallabies will find hard to counter. With Smith taking a much-needed break after the opening two Bledisloe matches it remains to be seen what New Zealand will do for the rest of the tournament without his services. The only real weak link for us in New Zealand’s backs is Sonny Bill Williams. Sure he has plenty of potential but we still feel he is rather one-dimensional, often poorly disciplined and despite his strength not exactly hard for opposition defences to figure out. In short, and much to the ire of many New Zealand supporters we are sure – a rather overrated player in our estimation. Against weaker opposition he is less of a liability but up against tougher opponents for us the jury is still out. Australia will struggle to match New Zealand’s pace and brains in the backs, despite the obvious talents of players like fullback Israel Folau and the above mentioned Kerevi. We simply don’t know enough about winger Curtis Rona to offer any comment and his partner Henry Speight tends to blow hot and cold too much for our liking. Consequently we expect to see New Zealand comfortably running the back lines on Saturday.

Apart from Tevita Kuridrani and Reece Hodge the Wallaby bench looks rather tepid compared to New Zealand’s offering. With the All Blacks having the likes of wrecking ball Ardie Savea at their disposal, the annoying but highly effective TJ Perenara, the speed of Anton Liennert-Brown and the reliability of Lima Sopoaga to call on New Zealand should ultimately be able to run away with this match in the last twenty minutes. Australia have to and will put up a brave showing in front of a home crowd, but the sideshows going on in Australian rugby tied to a team seriously lacking in confidence and results, means that barring one of the greatest comebacks in recent times, this match has a comfortable All Black win by 18 points written all over it! For the sake of a proud rugby nation in crisis we hope we’re proven wrong.

South Africa vs Argentina
Saturday, August 19th
Port Elizabeth

South Africa looked fantastic against France in June. There was a pride, passion and energy in the jersey that we simply didn’t see last year. Couple that to some superb execution and exquisite open running rugby, allied to the Springboks traditional physical strengths and South Africa seemed to be back with a vengeance. Many, ourselves included wanted to believe that this was South Africa emerging from the wreckage of 2016, however the inevitable questions were still being raised about the quality of the French opposition. French touring teams are usually exhausted after the end of international rugby’s longest domestic club season, and therefore apart from one-off upsets such as the famous victory against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1994, rarely put in a series that gives the opposition too many sleepless nights. Consequently, the Rugby Championship will be the first real litmus test of whether or not the Springboks are once more on the rise. However, all that aside from what we saw in June we liked what was on show and if they can maintain that momentum they are going to be a very difficult side to beat especially at home. As a result we are really looking forward to this opening contest between Argentina and South Africa in which two talented sides have to lay down some important markers for the future, with South Africa perhaps carrying the higher burden of expectation.

Apart from the exceptional Malcolm Marx for the Springboks, and despite the fact that the Pumas front row is not the wonder weapon it has been in the past, we still expect to see Argentina win the battle of the front rows in Port Elizabeth. Pumas Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy continues to be such an enormous talisman for his team, and packing down alongside Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and Enrique Pieretto, we feel that this is a slightly more effective and edgier unit than the Springbok offering. Malcolm Marx at Hooker for the Springboks has been truly outstanding this season and we can’t wait to see him in action but we feel his supporting props, Connie Oosthuizen and Tendai Mtawarira, are not as effective as their Argentine counterparts with Mtawarira starting to lack some of his consistency and potency of years gone by. In the second rows, a battle royale is imminent as two of the most aggressive second rowers in the modern game have at each other in the shape of South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini. Meanwhile for us one of 2017’s best players, South Africa’s Franco Mostert is likely to have a huge impact in Port Elizabeth. Having said that though we are also big fans of Argentina’s  Guido Petti. Etzebeth and Lavanini in particular will have to watch their tempers as they are renowned for lapses in discipline, but with the Captaincy being given to Etzebeth, the South African is likely to be much better at keeping himself in the referees good books than the Argentinian. Nevertheless the battle between these four very talented players will be one of the most fascinating and entertaining aspects of the contest on Saturday. Expect Argentina to give as good as they get here, but Mostert’s phenomenal work rate this year should see South Africa rule the day here. In the back rows despite the absence of regular Captain and number eight Warren Whiteley, South Africa should be the dominant force. Flanker Siya Kolisi was nothing short of extraordinary in the series against France and often singlehandedly epitomised the rebirth of Springbok rugby after the nightmares of 2016. His partner Jaco Kriel is a player who needs no introduction and brings enormous power and motivation to the Springbok game. The Pumas flanker Pablo Matera and number eight Leonardo Senatore are extremely dangerous in their own right but in our estimation not quite the match of the two South Africans just mentioned. Tomas Lezana is still a relatively unknown commodity to us as is Springbok number eight Uzair Cassiem, and personally we would much rather have seen Jean-Luc du Preez start at number eight after some stellar performances against France. Overall despite a strong showing from the Pumas we think South Africa have the more destructive and effective forward pack.

In the halfbacks we once more hand the battle to South Africa especially on home soil. Fly half Elton Jantjies was outstanding against France and for the Lions in their Super Rugby campaign. His opposite number Argentina’s Nicholas Sanchez is a proven talent but suffers from a lack of consistency at times as well as a penchant for amateur dramatics which sadly detracts from his otherwise considerable abilities. We really liked the look of Springbok scrum half Russell Cronje this year and his familiarity with Lions team-mate Jantjies should give South Africa the edge here. The same could be argued of Martin Landajo of the Pumas, who also plays alongside Sanchez in the Jaguares at Super Rugby level. However, the Argentinian pair can be brilliant one day and utterly error strewn the next – whereas the South African duo while perhaps not as dazzling with ball in hand appear the more reliable of the two.

In the backs however, if Argentina are allowed to cut loose we actually rate the Pumas more highly than the Springbok offering. If the likes of fullback Joaquin Tuculet, wingers Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli and centres Matias Orlando and Jeronimo de la Fuente are allowed any kind of space then it will be a long afternoon in desperate defence for South Africa. We really liked the look of fullback Andries Coetzee for the Lions this year in Super Rugby and against France in June, and the same can be said of Jan Serfontein at centre. However, although Jesse Kriel at centre can be brilliant on his day he’s had too many matches where he has been a bit too quiet for our liking. Although wingers Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule pack plenty of pace we feel that both can be an enormous liability in defence and with the likes of Boffelli and Moyano attempting to catch them off guard all afternoon we fear that this could be a serious weak link in South Africa’s armor. Thus despite the star quality of the likes of Coetzee and Serfontein we can’t help feeling the Pumas quintet are the more established and thus dangerous unit, and one which could swing the balance Argentina’s way if South Africa, as they traditionally do, get their Rugby Championship off to a shaky start.

If South Africa do end up having a bad day at the office, they may struggle to make amends with their bench, and if this is the case we actually prefer Argentina’s chances here. The standouts for us on the Springbok bench are lock Pieter-Steph du Toit and prop Stephen Kitshoff with the latter having had a stellar series against France. As mentioned above we were surprised to see flanker Jean-Luc du Preez on the bench, as he was outstanding against France and expect him to have plenty to say earlier rather than later in this match, especially if South Africa falter in the beginning. However, the rest of the bench doesn’t really make us sit up and take notice in South Africa’s case though we are excited to see newcomer Curwin Bosch get a chance at glory when he comes on for Elton Jantjies. We cannot for the life of us understand the inclusion of centre Damian de Allende as he has consistently been one of South Africa’s most overrated players for a long time now.  The Pumas bench by comparison is packing some very big names in shape of Hooker Julian Montoya, Prop Ramiro Herrera, Flanker Javier Ortega Desio, scrum half Tomas Cubelli and centres Juan Martin Hernandez and Matias Moroni. If South Africa get off to their traditionally poor start to the tournament, this group of Argentinians could cause the first upset of this year’s competition in the final quarter.

All that being said though we expect to see the Springboks to play a more effective and composed physical game up front and wear down the Pumas, while closing down any gaps that would allow the kind of open play that Argentina is so good at exploiting. Jantjies will punish any kind of disciplinary lapses by the Pumas, and given that this is one of Argentina’s biggest weaknesses the points board should be ticking over on a regular basis in South Africa’s favor. South Africa are likely to be the more clinical of the two, while Argentina’s adventurism is unlikely to be backed up by the execution needed at this level under pressure. There will be some breathtaking moments from both sides, but South Africa are more likely to stay the course and get the job done, and as a result walk away the winners by 8 points! However, if they fail to establish a stranglehold on the game from the outset and the scores are close on the hour, the last quarter could be an exceptionally tense time as Argentina’s bench seeks to give us the first major talking point of the tournament.

Women’s Rugby World Cup

With the semi-finals now decided we felt that we needed to pass comment on what we feel is a great tournament marred by some structuring decisions that simply aren’t fair in the way the event is set up. Yes we were sad to see the Canadian team, runners-up in the previous tournament get knocked out by New Zealand today. We do not for a moment bemoan the fact that New Zealand were the better side by a country mile and are going to be very hard to beat and thus likely front-runners to lift the trophy. Furthermore, the four teams in the semi finals, England, France, New Zealand and the USA all deserve to be there. However, England and the USA benefitted from being in a relatively ‘soft pool’, and thus having the chance of both getting through to the semis. For the other eight teams in much harder pools they had to win all three of their matches to stand any kind of chance of getting through to the semis. This must surely make the hosts Ireland feel more than a little hard done by as well as Canada – both these teams finishing a strong second in their pools. Add to this the fact that all pool matches, which we thought lacked nothing in intensity and physicality, had to be played in the space of 8 days, hardly giving the players a chance to recuperate.

The previous tournament was a glorious advertisement for the women’s game, but this tournament despite starting off well, has felt rushed with player welfare being a secondary concern as well as only really allowing four out of the twelve teams a genuine shot at glory by reaching the finals. Consequently it is unlikely to now capture the imagination as much as the 2014 tournament did. There has been some very worthy rugby on display by all the women involved in this tournament in the past week, but the format of this year’s tournament has detracted from the effort and hard work put in by all the teams involved and as a result left many of us feeling distinctly dissatisfied with the outcome. If the spectators feel that we can only imagine how the players who have trained and worked so hard up to this point over the last three years must feel. In short World Rugby can and must do better for the next Women’s World Cup in order to give women’s rugby the respect it has earned and deserves!

Endnote

We’re including the 1014’s excellent preview of this year’s Rugby Championship on YouTube. As stated after the Lions Tour, we are HUGE fans of the work these two fine gentlemen, Steven and Gareth, are doing. So give them a big thumbs up and subscribe in order to keep this excellent content coming. Well done guys and looking forward to more!