Archive for the ‘Rugby Championship 2019’ Category

Yes we know there are three other big games this weekend, but as we only have team sheets for the Canada/Tonga and Argentina/South Africa matches, our usual previews of Australia/New Zealand and the European World Cup warmups will have to wait till tomorrow.

Canada finish up a difficult Pacific Nations Cup this weekend, and if they don’t get an elusive win against Tonga tomorrow night then you’d have to wonder what they’ve actually learnt if anything over the last three weeks in terms of their World Cup preparations.

Meanwhile South Africa travel to Argentina, to try and seal their first Southern Hemisphere title since 2009. There is no denying that the Springboks are looking sharp this year and after dispatching Australia with ease and holding New Zealand to a draw, they find themselves at the top of the Rugby Championship table as they head into this weekend’s final round of games. Argentina will be no pushover though, and themselves put New Zealand under enormous pressure in the tournament opener. What exactly happened to them a week later in Australia is anyone’s guess, as we watched a dismal spectacle riddled with errors from both sides – quite frankly one of the worst games of rugby we’ve watched in this last World Cup cycle. Argentina are better than that – much better- and on home ground expect them to once more become the smoking gun that everyone is inevitably talking about as the World Cup draws closer.

Like we say we’ll cover the European warmups tomorrow along with Australia vs New Zealand in Bledisloe 1, but in the interim here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Tonga vs Canada – Friday, August 9th (August 8th for Canadian TV viewers) – Fiji

Poor against the USA and a completely inept second half against Fiji, means that Canada have never really looked the part in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup which for all intents and purposes has been a warmup for the World Cup more than anything. Sadly Canada would appear to have learnt little about their strengths but a great deal about their weaknesses. Whether or not there is sufficient time between now and their World Cup opener against Italy to address these issues is a million dollar question. As a result, Canada know that tomorrow’s game will require a huge performance in order to restore some confidence to a team that has not enjoyed a winning culture for a very long time now.

With no disrespect to Tonga, who sadly we know very little about, Canada should at least be competitive and hopefully decidedly more polished than they were against Fiji and the USA. The game against Fiji was simply painful to watch. Canada spent the first half aimlessly box kicking to a team that is renowned for their ability to run the ball and who possess some of the most mesmerizing ball handling skills in open play in the modern game. Canada then spent the second half continuously trying to use rolling mauls which the Fijians brought to ground with almost joyful abandon. Canada seemed completely without a plan B, and simply stuck doggedly to two tactics that got them no traction whatsoever for the full eighty minutes. What was going on in the coaching box was beyond us.

This week, we are not exactly holding our breath after looking at the team sheet.

Michael Sheppard take a bow

We were really surprised to not see the Toronto Arrows tank in the starting lineup for last week’s match, and although we were devastated for Justin Blanchet who had to leave the field after only 2 minutes due to injury, the opportunity that it provided Sheppard was golden. In a match where Canadian standout performances were hard to find, the big second rower was one of the few who stood up and were counted. As a result we are delighted to see him get a starting berth for this match, and expect him to make life difficult for Tonga as well as provide some much needed inspiration and go forward ability for the rest of his colleagues.

Also in the forwards Tyler Ardron makes a welcome return

Like Sheppard against Fiji, Ardron was one of the few players who stood out in the game against the USA. With himself and Sheppard on the field tomorrow Canada should not be short in the inspiration department.

Tonga’s forward pack have plenty of Top14 experience in France so Canada will really need to be at their best here, but overall Canada are fielding perhaps their best forward pack of the competition. Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie shore up a solid back row.

The halfback combinations are not working and we don’t see much room for improvement tomorrow either

This week sees Gordon McRorie moved from scrum half to fly half, and when he moved to the role in the second half last week Canada did seem to gain a bit more fizz in their attack. Sadly we feel that McRorie brings absolutely nothing to the scrum half position and if his service was any slower off the base of the scrum and rucks then it would be more akin to lawn bowling than rugby. He allows the opposition so much time to set their defensive structures that Canada is going nowhere on attack. Phil Mack brings much more energy to the position, but his performance in the USA game was riddled with errors. We would really prefer to see Jamie Mackenzie get a starting berth at 9 in preparation for the World Cup and once more are dismayed to see him start on the bench. He did add some value in the last quarter against Fiji, and him at scrum half and McRorie at fly half does seem a better combination unless Mack has one of those games we all know he is capable of.

Canada will be looking to DTH to once more save the day

He is undoubtedly Canada’s only genuine world class player, but all too often he is expected to perform miracles by the rest of his teammates. Furthermore, to be honest the outstanding winger has been ominously quiet in Canada’s most recent outings. We really hope that won’t be the case tomorrow.

Verdict

Canada has a hard road to hoe tomorrow, but surely their luck has to turn at some point, even if doing it in the heat of the South Pacific is a tall order. Tonga have a better winning record than Canada at the moment, and have managed to beat Fiji last year. However, much like Canada they seem to be a very hit and miss outfit. Playing in Fiji will be much more like home turf for them than Canada, as well as being more used to playing in the humidity. It’s a close call but based on form we’d have to hand it to Tonga. Nevertheless, Canada should be able to run them a lot closer than perhaps they expect. However, we’re still giving it to the Pacific Islanders by three while still hoping for a big performance from Canada!

Argentina vs South Africa – Saturday, August 10th – Salta

Like we say we are really not sure what happened to Argentina in Australia, but hopefully by now they have figured it out. South Africa on the other hand while still having some work to do, are no doubt feeling rather pleased with their World Cup preparations which seem to be on a very positive trajectory.

Argentina are not in the hunt for any silverware but that is clearly not much of an agenda item for them, as they seek to use the tournament to gel overseas based players back into the squad, and Saturday’s match is no exception.

Argentina’s scrum has struggled and Saturday’s Test will see just how much progress Coach Ledesma has made in fixing it

South Africa bring two powerhouse front rows to Argentina on Saturday, with tight head prop Frans Malherbe being the only possible weak link. We’re not overly convinced that the Pumas outfit will be able to go the distance. The only real consistency and competitiveness we see here for the Pumas is at hooker with Agustin Creevy and Julian Montoya. The rest of it we fear will just be going backwards on Saturday.

Talking of hookers is Mbonambi bringing the accuracy the Springboks are missing at lineout time?

Don’t get us wrong we are HUGE fans of Malcolm Marx, but there is no denying his lineout throwing has been poor to say the least, and to make up for it we haven’t quite seen the kind of barnstorming heroics that made him such a household name in Test rugby eighteen months ago, to make up for his discrepancies at lineout time. Consequently, up steps Mbonambi who for the most part appears to be a pretty accurate dart thrower. He’s no slouch at the coalface either and Coach Rassie Erasmus clearly sees him as Mr. Dependable heading into the World Cup, with Marx coming in to shake things up when the opposition could really do without it.

Argentina’s Europeans didn’t quite make the cut in Australia but history is unlikely to repeat itself this weekend

We really felt that Argentina looked poor against the Wallabies, and we certainly weren’t expecting it. We are putting it down to the overseas based players’ unfamiliarity with a unit that essentially has operated as one for the last six months in the shape of the Jaguares. There was no denying that Facundo Isa and Santiago Cordero looked slightly out of sorts and unsure of how to function in a unit that had a genuine track record of success under their belts. We very much doubt that will be the case this Saturday, and despite a wobble against Australia Nicolas Sanchez should also be back to his best, especially after putting in such a strong performance against New Zealand last month straight off the plane from France.

Is this the kind of game where Kwagga Smith finally lights up the pitch?

As regular readers of this blog know, we are big fans of the Springbok utility forward who is an expert at putting his sevens experience to good use. Unfortunately he hasn’t quite had the opportunity to do so in his last few outings in a Springbok jersey but this could be his chance to shine. Given the slightly frenetic pace of any match against the Pumas, Smith could well find himself with the kind of open space he excels at exploiting. Talking of open space for the Springboks, we also feel that Pieter-Steph du Toit deserves honourable mention here as well, after his chip kick exploits against New Zealand a fortnight ago, with the big utility forward clearly becoming one of the Springboks most valuable players. Much like Smith we’ve rated him from day one in a Springbok jersey.

The rise of the small men

Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe has become something of a legend here at the Lineout, and we don’t think we are the only ones who hold him in such high regard. He may be one of the smallest men on the pitch, but you would never think it. The sight of him hauling New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick to the ground needed to be seen to be believed. The man simply has no fear, and his tackling game is something to behold. Add to that his vision and pace and there is no doubt that the diminutive winger has developed into one of the finest all round players in the modern game. Debutant scrum half Herschel Jantjies has also become one of the finds of the year. Having scored a try in each of his two matches to date in a Springbok jersey, he is also a player playing well above his weight and experience grade. We can’t remember when we saw such a natural transition to Test level rugby. In a team renowned for giant bone crushing leviathans, the Springboks have finally found a place for 5 foot tall 75 kg titans!

Verdict

Beating Argentina’s Jaguares on home soil has become next to impossible, however beating the Pumas for some reason on home soil doesn’t quite hold the same challenge. However, despite their present form, South Africa have struggled with this task more than their other Southern Hemisphere rivals. Argentina has not been a happy hunting ground at times for the Springboks and Saturday should provide more of the same in terms of a challenge. Nevertheless South Africa seem to be going from strength the strength while the Pumas are still finding their feet after a disappointing season last year. With the added bonus of some silverware on offer and the confidence booster this provides ahead of a World Cup, expect the Springboks to be well and truly up for this one. Argentina will give them a very good run for their money in the process, but we expect South Africa to take the game by five!

Test Rugby is now in full swing and will remain so till the beginning of November and the final whistle of the World Cup. As a result there is plenty of action to be had this weekend. The Rugby Championship and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s unofficial warm up for Japan continues in its abbreviated format this weekend. South Africa travel to Wellington to attempt to repeat their historic win against New Zealand on the same ground a year ago. Meanwhile Argentina travel to Australia to take on the Wallabies in Brisbane and also hope to repeat their famous victory on Australian soil last year. Lastly Canada travel to Denver before heading down to the South Pacific and take on the USA for the second time this year.

Unfortunately due to the pressures of work this week, we’ve been unable to do our usual five talking points for each match, but here’s a quick summary of what we’re looking at for all three games.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, July 27th – Wellington

Without a doubt given the thrill of last year’s spectacle, this is THE big fixture of the weekend. South Africa are fielding an exceptionally strong squad for this encounter as are New Zealand who will be keen to seek revenge for their defeat on home soil last year by the Springboks. South Africa arrive brimming with confidence after a comprehensive thrashing of Australia last weekend, made all the more impressive without some of their key players. Admittedly Australia are not exactly setting the world on fire at the moment, but it was still an important win that saw a well disciplined and cohesive Springbok performance. New Zealand on the other hand, although not fielding their strongest side, struggled to keep Argentina at bay last weekend, and were lucky to come away with a narrow win.

This weekend sees both sides field their first choice lineups, and given the form of both teams, promises to be an exciting encounter and a mirror image of both sides’ opening match in the World Cup in two months time.

Looking at the lineups, a couple of things stand out for us most notably the appearance of the two main contenders for the All Black 10 jersey on the field together. Beauden Barrett reverts to the fullback position for this match, while Richie Mo’unga takes up his usual spot with the Crusaders and New Zealand at fly half. Barrett ultimately got the job done last weekend but we felt that Argentina often had his measure and it wasn’t his greatest day at the office. In the case of Mo’unga we have yet to see him have a bad day this year, and if he can translate this form to Test level in an intensely physical and demanding Test, then the race for the selectors first choice will be that much tighter between the two fly halves. Barrett has not played fullback at Test level for quite some time, almost six years ago to be precise against Japan, and he has only played three times in the 15 jersey for the Men in Black. There is no doubting his versatility but to shift one of your key play makers to such a relatively unfamiliar position for such a big game, will really be a testimony to Barrett’s abilities if he pulls it off with flying colors. He’ll be up against one of Test Rugby’s best in the shape of Willie le Roux and we’d argue that in the aerial contests the South African may come off better given his familiarity with the position.

TJ Perenara gets the starting scrum half berth this weekend, and deservedly so in our opinion for a match of this stature. We’d argue he is New Zealand’s form number 9 by a country mile at the moment, and his rival Aaron Smith didn’t really do anything last weekend to make us sit up and take notice, and was often outplayed by Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli. Perenara will need to be on his toes as he goes head to head with South Africa’s live wire Faf de Klerk and with try scoring debutant machine Herschel Jantjies on the bench New Zealand will really have to keep their wits about them in this part of the park.

The back row for South Africa sees the highly anticipated return of one of our favorite Springboks Kwagga Smith. For us he is the try scoring equivalent of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea who we are surprised to see sit this one out. Whenever Smith is on the field South Africa’s X-factor goes up another few notches. He may not be the whirlwind wrecking ball that Savea is, but he is one of Test Rugby’s most glorious opportunists. Add to the mix the figure of flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, whose emotions at the end of last year’s match on the same ground so effectively summed up what that victory meant to the Springboks, and South Africa will be hard to beat up front.

Our last big surprise for a game with so much riding on it was the decision by New Zealand to start Sonny Bill Williams. This surely must be the last chance saloon for the All Black centre, as in our opinion, with no disrespect to the great man we feel he is past his sell by date and brings nothing particularly dynamic to an area of the park that will be hotly contested, with South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am being an exciting prospect for the Springboks and Damian de Allende having dramatically upped his game since last year.

Lastly we feel South Africa pack an absolute power house bench. New Zealand’s offering from the sidelines is respectable make no mistake, but we feel if South Africa have the edge by the time the bench becomes a factor it could swing the game in the Springboks favor.

Verdict

Either way a huge match in prospect and one you won’t want to miss. Despite their shock defeat last year, the likelihood of New Zealand losing at home twice in a row and at the same venue to boot seems on paper to be rather remote. We think South Africa is fielding a team more than capable of matching up to the All Blacks, but New Zealand will have a fairly hefty point to prove in front of a home crowd who will make sure they remember why they’re there. Consequently in a hard fought match we’re giving it to New Zealand by five, perhaps more than anything on the premise that lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice!

Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane

Last year Australia got ultimately shown the door by a better disciplined and structured Pumas side. We’d argue the Pumas are even better organised and focused than they were last year, and despite their loss last weekend will be buoyed by the fact that they made the best team in the world work for a full eighty minutes last Saturday. Australia to be honest, seemed no better than they were last season and if anything a tad worse. Their match against South Africa was riddled with schoolboy mistakes, handling errors and a general lack of cohesion and poor execution. To get past a Pumas side that is really starting to click nicely they are going to have to be a lot better, and home advantage alone is unlikely to address the error count we saw last week.

Argentina seem to have finally addressed their scrum problems, while we have seen little if any evidence that Australia have got their house in order in this department. Argentina still have plenty of work to do, but guiding proceedings at the coalface is the exceptionally capable Julian Montoya. Argentina to make some much needed progress here on Saturday, most likely at Australia’s expense, with the Wallabies misery likely to be compounded in the second row, as Argentina’s Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini show them how it’s done.

Australia’s problems are unlikely to improve in the back row, with the talking point of the week being the eagerly awaited return of Facundo Isa to the Pumas number eight jersey. Throw in the wrecking ball that is Pablo Matera who is likely to make mincemeat of the Wallabies Michael Hooper and we just can’t see Australia making any inroads here. In short, when it comes to the battles up front we have a hunch that Australia may find themselves completely outclassed.

Things get better for Australia in the backs, but even there we’d argue Argentina don’t have too much to worry about, especially given Australia’s lack of ball handling skills last weekend. The one positive we did see for Australia was the welcome return to the scrum half berth of Nic White, and in one of the very few standout Wallaby performances last weekend, White has given Will Genia a lot to think about this Saturday as he makes his bid for the first choice scrum half berth. Australia pack some very big, powerful and mobile units in their set of backs both on the wing and the center channels this weekend, and Kurtley Beale  immediately made his presence known last Saturday when he came off the bench. He has also proven himself handy in the fullback position which is where he starts this week. Argentina though possess some devastating speed merchants and Saturday also sees the long overdue return of European based winger Santiago Cordero who made plenty of headlines for the Pumas at the last World Cup. With the exception of perhaps the physical aspect, it is very much a question of Argentina being able to say to Australia, “anything you can do, we can do better” in back play.

Verdict

Australia may be at home, and on paper have a very good looking spreadsheet from 9-15, but up front we feel they just don’t have parity with Argentina. Add to that the fact that the Pumas are no slouchers from 9-15 themselves, and we’d argue that Argentina look much more like the finished product. With the exception of their two overseas based players this is a very settled and familiar unit, that has already proved that it can rise to the occasion. Australia may have home advantage but we feel that Argentina have a better understanding of what game they want to play. Consequently in what should be an absolutely fascinating contest we’re handing it to the Pumas by 2!

USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver

We’ll be completely honest, after two months of cheering on the Toronto Arrows close to home, we were a little disappointed to see less players from the successful MLR side than we were expecting for such a crunch match, unless Coach Kingsley Jones is saving his best for arguably one of Canada’s most challenging encounters this year – the game with Fiji. Canada is boasting some very big names for this match, most notably the incomparable winger DTH van der Merwe who is truly world-class. However, we felt that Toronto Arrows scrum half Jamie Mackenzie was certainly worth inclusion over the remarkably pedestrian Gordon McRorie.

Furthermore the fact that neither second rower Mike Sheppard or winger Dan Moor even made it to the bench left us puzzled. One thing we were delighted to see though was the return of number eight Tyler Ardron, who always brings such shape and presence to a Canadian side, while newcomer Ben LeSage gets a worthy call up to the centers.

The Americans are also open to experimentation, but having watched the last half of the MLR season with interest, there are a lot of very familiar looking and exceptionally capable American players in this starting XV. Based on what we saw this year, Canada are really going to have to work hard to contain the threat posed by second rower Nick Civetta, flanker John Quill, and number eight Cam Dolan.

After a very successful season with English Premiership side Sale Sharks, Eagles Irish import fly half AJ MacGinty returns to service for the USA, and his game management skills are going to really put Canadian newcomer and fellow Irish import Paul Nelson to the test.

Verdict

Canada need a big performance on Saturday, but their away form has for quite some time now been poor. However, the one saving grace is that they did manage to run the United States close in their last encounter which was also on the road. If the likes of DTH van der Merwe can find the gaps in what would appear to be a fairly solid US defense, then Canada could come out of this on a positive note in their build up to the World Cup. However, we can’t help feeling that it’s still a tall order especially for some of the less experienced players in the squad, as well as those whose continued selection leaves us slightly puzzled. Consequently, in front of a home crowd, and with some serious talent in the mix, the USA should ultimately pull ahead and get the job done by eight points!

 

 

 

 

 

The start of the Rugby Championship this weekend, the annual dust up between the Southern Hemisphere’s big four, marks the official start to the warm up process for the World Cup in Japan which kicks off in just over two months time from now. The competition as it always is in a World Cup year, is abbreviated down to six matches instead of the normal 12, and although the traditional silverware is still on offer, due to the radically changed format it doesn’t quite have the same value of non World Cup years. In short what the next three weekends are all about for the four countries involved, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is finalizing structures and getting a broad mix of experienced and inexperienced players to gel together ahead of the big show in Japan. Winning the Rugby Championship this year is likely to have little bearing on your chances come September, but being able to put in solid performances and consolidate your depth will say a lot about your preparations.

Consequently all four coaches will be looking to see what their squads are made of and what combinations work. Sure it will be nice to have some silverware to round off the experience, but consistency and an understanding of what’s in your toolbox will be of much more value to the coaching staffs and players alike over the coming weeks. For us there will be plenty to have a look at and lots of excitement on offer as players seek to lay down markers and really compete for those coveted seats on the plane to Japan. The focus may be less on the trophy and more on what can be put on show over the next three weekends, which ultimately should make for some great rugby entertainment. So while the Rugby Championship title may not really matter all that much this year, the tournament certainly will for the players involved.

Here’s what got us talking this week about what’s on offer on Saturday and what we’ll be looking at.

South Africa vs Australia – Saturday, July 20th – Johannesburg

There is lots of experimentation going on here from both Coaches, some injury enforced, but plenty done with an eye to depth in the tank for Japan. As mentioned above it should make for two sides who are perhaps less focused on the silverware and more on the opportunity to shine and thus book a trip to Japan. Of the two sides, South Africa perhaps looks the more familiar from a Test point of view, while Australia drafts in some players we haven’t seen for a while and gives some of the Super Rugby youngsters a chance to  come to the fore in a Test jersey. Either way it should a be a fascinating match and one which should give both Coaches an interesting and much needed look at options with a view to Japan.

It may not be South Africa’s traditional front row, but it is going to make life more than a little challenging for Australia

Quite frankly with Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff out of the mix for this match for the Springboks, we were curious to see what Springbok Coach Rassie Erasmus would come up with. When we saw the starting XV we felt immediately reassured. For us Bongi Mbonambi has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years. He’s a competitor make no mistake and has been pivotal in securing some big wins for South Africa in recent years, even if it has often been from the bench. Consequently, seeing him get the starting nod for this match and a chance to show that he can deliver in some of South Africa’s key games in the pool stages can only be a plus for Springbok depth. Put him alongside Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and all of a sudden you’ve got a unit that can put some real pressure, especially at altitude, on a new look Australian front row. Trevor Nyakane on a good day can also add some bruising beef to the Springboks efforts at the coalface, and with Vincent Koch fresh from Saracens duty in England on the bench, Australia are likely to struggle to keep up here.

Australia do have some hope up front in the second row as they continue to produce some quality here

The Wallabies field a highly rated second rower in the shape of Rory Arnold and a very underrated one in our opinion in the form of Izack Rodda on Saturday. If they can keep their heads in the face of constant niggling from Springbok Captain Eben Etzebeth, then this Australian duo could spark some go forward ability for Australia especially at lineout time. Rodda in particular needs a big stage and this year’s Rugby Championship could really give him the platform he needs to secure that highly coveted ticket to Japan. Arnold and the injured Adam Coleman are likely shoe-ins but Rodda could really stand up and be counted on Saturday, and we think he may just get the better of Lood de Jager who hasn’t really caught our eye the last couple of seasons for the Springboks.

Even with the experimentation South Africa look terrifying up front and even pack a surprise in the back row.

South Africa seem to be going true to form in this match and are packing a formidable punch from 1-8. In short, there is only one real surprise in the starting XV, the inclusion of Toulouse flanker Rynhardt Elstadt. Oh hang on, did you see Toulouse’s road to the Top 14 title? If you did and some of their exploits in the European Champions Cup, then Elstadt’s inclusion suddenly becomes a no-brainer as he was a key player for the French side this season. His Springbok debut may be late at the age of 29, but there is no denying that his European exploits have earned him the jersey and then some.

It all looks great till 9 and 10 for South Africa

Australia are strong here and South Africa just aren’t plain and simple. Elton Jantjies just isn’t a Test level fly half, and although they are not related Herschel Jantjies doesn’t fill us with optimism either. Although he makes his debut for the Springboks, the Stormers scrum half had some great moments in Super Rugby against weaker teams, but was usually shown the door by stronger outfits during the competition. As for Elton Jantjies, as most readers of this blog know, there is just no faith there in his abilities to run games at Test level. South Africa’s biggest problem is kicking perfectly good possession away, a skill that Jantjies unfortunately excels at. We are fascinated to see Nic White back in action for the Wallabies after a spell in the Premiership in England with Exeter Chiefs. With Will Genia on the bench for Australia, South Africa could have real problems here on Saturday. Bernard Foley keeps things steady at fly half for the Wallabies, and we just can’t see South Africa having much to offer here.

This has to be Warrick Gelant and Tom Banks’ big chance

Australia is without the soap opera that comes courtesy of Israel Folau for this match and as a result we finally get to see what Tom Banks can do on the big stage. Although we felt he got marginalised by the Jaguares in the Brumbies Super Rugby semi final, there is no denying the impact the young dynamic fullback had on the Canberra outfit’s campaign this season. By the same token Warrick Gelant has increasingly caught our eye with the Bulls at fullback, and is starting to live up to the hype surrounding him in South Africa. If these two and the rest of their fellow backs on both sides can cut out the handling errors, then we could be in for a fast paced running game with both teams offering up some real speedsters in their midst. If Gelant and Banks can be solid in defence and set up the kinds of counterattacks that their wingers thrive on then we could see some genuine fireworks on Saturday. Gelant will be more comfortable with the thinner air of the high veld, so it will be fascinating to see if he can really turn the screw on Australia in the aerial game.

Verdict

Australia perhaps have more to prove than South Africa in this match, and with the Springboks having home advantage, the Wallabies couldn’t ask for a better start to their World Cup warm up. South Africa though may be making life harder than it needs to be in terms of game management, especially given the wealth of experience Australia offer in Bernard Foley, Nic White and Will Genia. If the Springboks get this crucial aspect of their game wrong on Saturday then it could be a long afternoon at Ellis Park for them. Australia are likely to struggle to gain parity up front, but possess two exceptionally dangerous centres and a back line that has speed and power written all over it. As a result it’s a match where both sides’ positives cancel each other out, but we still think at home it’s South Africa’s game to lose. If South Africa’s forward pack can bludgeon Australia into submission and give their half backs no space in which to operate in, the the Springboks have enough pace of their own out wide to feed off whatever scraps may come their way. We’re concerned about the Jantjies squared combination, but feel South Africa still has enough street smarts and cohesion to get the job done by four points!

Argentina vs New Zealand – Saturday, July 20th – Buenos Aires

This is almost part 2 of the Super Rugby final, as New Zealand’s best take on Argentina’s best, this time on home soil for the South Americans. With the Pumas side looking almost identical to the Jaguares side that traveled to Christchurch earlier this month to take on the Crusaders, it’s hard to not draw the comparison. This time though the Pumas take on instead of the Crusaders, the best of the rest from New Zealand who would arguably be the dream team of most Coaches’ starting XVs.

Many are writing off the Pumas, given the Jaguares inability to put any big points on the Crusaders a fortnight ago, and a seemingly one sided game when one looked only at the scoreline. However, delve into the statistics for that match and it suddenly becomes clear that the Jaguares were keeping level on most fronts and in some cases well ahead, it was their execution at times and some poor decision making from some of their less experienced players that cost them a match played at full throttle. On home soil and with the value added of star play maker and fly half Nicolas Sanchez back in the mix, the Pumas are likely to be a much different prospect. With a rapturous crowd at the Jose Amalfitani in full voice, the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more demanding fixture in which to sharpen up those World Cup talons and maintain focus and composure in a challenging environment. Whatever the scoreline come the final whistle, we have a hunch that the adjective boring won’t feature in any post match analysis of this one.

Can Coach Mario Ledesma restore the Argentinian scrum?

As a former front rIower himself for the Pumas, Ledesma must have looked on in horror at the seemingly inexplicable weak link in an otherwise stellar Jaguares Super Rugby campaign. It looked like it was finally starting to come together by the time of the final, and seemed much improved against the Crusaders. However, given that a dominant scrum has been such a traditional staple of Argentinian rugby in the past its seeming demise this past eighteen months is of concern. If they are going to reverse that trend and stop Argentina going backwards then Saturday is potentially a golden opportunity to get some confidence back at the coalface. Apart from the legendary Dane Coles, who to be honest we fear more outside the scrum than in, New Zealand are not bringing anything to Buenos Aires that sets alarm bells ringing. If the Pumas get their structures and techniques right on Saturday they could restore some genuine pride to a battered unit, which they desperately need ahead of the World Cup.

Brodie Retallick vs the Lavanini/Petti axis – one of the weekend’s biggest attractions

The last time these three met in their Super Rugby quarter final, it was the South American duo who made the headlines, giving Retallick an exceptionally quiet afternoon by his standards. We doubt that in an All Black jersey the giant New Zealand powerhouse will be as demure, but there is no denying the spoiler alert that the Pumas pair have become especially at lineout time. After two years of disciplinary therapy Lavanini has transformed himself from masquerading as a giant red card  disguised in a rugby jersey, to becoming a genuine master of the dark arts of the forward battles within the laws, albeit at the very fringes. Petti has been off the charts and in open play is one of the Pumas best opportunists. New Zealand will simply have to be at their very best here, and this contest alone should be worth the price of admission or your TV subscription.

Could these be two of the best back rows in Test rugby right now?

Even without Keiran Reid, we feel this is not an under strength All Black back row. Quite frankly we thought the Crusaders back row came off distinctly second best in their tussle with this Jaguares, now Pumas back row a fortnight ago. Consequently, New Zealand now field arguably a much more mobile back row to counter the bruising ball carrying abilities of the likes of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Javier Ortega Desio. Matera is simply off the charts and we side with the argument that he is currently the best number 6 in the world at the moment. Ardie Savea though is simply brilliant whether at 7 or 8, although we feel he has the slight edge at 7. He was an absolute monster for the Hurricanes against the Crusaders in that epic semi-final a few weeks ago. We all know what Vaea Fifita can do against Argentina, so in short this is likely to be a battle of truly epic proportions with Savea and Matera causing complete havoc at times. You won’t want to miss it.

Is it business as usual again for New Zealand with Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith?

The next three weeks will perhaps shed light on the biggest question facing New Zealand heading into the World Cup. What is New Zealand’s starting halfback combination? Is it these two or Richie Mo’unga and TJ Perenara. Either way the race is on for all four, and Saturday sees Barrett and Smith get the first opportunity to stake their claim. What is not in doubt is the quality of all four, although we’d argue that Smith has more to prove than Perenara, with Mo’unga and Barrett in a photo finish race at the moment for the starting 10 jersey. If life wasn’t challenging enough for Smith and Barrett, Saturday’s match sees the return of star fly half Nicolas Sanchez for the Pumas, alongside established scrum half Tomas Cubelli.

Ramiro Moyano vs Sevu Reece – now you see them – now you don’t!

Sevu Reece’s eagerly anticipated All Black call up comes as no surprise after his explosive exploits for the Crusaders this season. Ally him to the vision of Beauden Barrett and in space he could prove to be Argentina’s worst nightmare and Ramiro Moyano’s ultimate defensive workout. However, the Pumas winger has a sidestep and pace of his own that has seen him carve giant swathes through opposition defenses completely unhindered. On top of that the Argentinian winger tackles like a man possessed and has made twice the number of his All Black counterpart this season. All Black Coach Steve Hansen could ask for no better opportunity to put Reece under the microscope in his All Black debut.

Verdict

This is no doubt for Argentinian supporters the rematch they wanted so badly with a New Zealand side, after the Jaguares failed to secure a home final in the recently concluded Super Rugby season. Expect the Jose Amalfitani Stadium to be standing room only and the noise simply deafening. As a result the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more fitting opener to their 2019 campaign which culminates with the World Cup. After all is said and done though we don’t buy into the argument that this is a second string All Black side, and if the Pumas make that mistake then it will be all over by half time. It will take an exceptionally focused and disciplined Pumas side, despite their success in Super Rugby, to get past 23 rather gifted men in black jerseys on Saturday afternoon. With so much at stake and the emotional factor of the crowd, it could all get too much for the Pumas in the heat of the moment, and we all know what any All Black side can do once they get a whiff of any kind of uncertainty in their opponents. This is an excellent Pumas team, which now has to translate their Super Rugby success to the Test Arena. Even with home advantage we feel it might still be too much of a tall order on the opening night of their season. Consequently, we have a suspicion that the All Blacks’ combined experience of winning away from home in tough environments might just get them through on Saturday, and in a very tight match, New Zealand to get the job done by five points – but brace yourself for the ride as Argentina make them work for every last inch of it!