What a round that was and best of all, we were proved utterly wrong in a lot of our assumptions when it came to South Africa! Argentina rewarded our belief in them and we really hope that they can finish their best Championship ever in style for the final two rounds.

However, our biggest shout out has to go to South Africa. We have to be honest after the shambles in Brisbane we really didn’t think they had it in them to knock over the All Blacks in their own backyard. You could forgive us for being a bit sceptical as the Springboks record on the road for the last few years has been truly woeful. Nevertheless, a big apology from all of us here to South African players and supporters alike as you pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Test Rugby in the last few years, and in doing so threw the form book out the window. In short, heartfelt congratulations to South Africa and we were absolutely delighted by the result.

What was perhaps even more important about the result in Wellington was that it showed that put New Zealand under pressure, and they are no longer the seemingly invincible juggernaut that we have come to see them as.  Let’s be honest they are still the world’s best, but up till now very few teams have been able to put them under the kind of examination they were subjected to in Wellington by South Africa. The Springboks did manage to do it last year in Cape Town and the Lions last summer, but other than that it was only that famous Irish win in Chicago two years ago that really gave us a glimpse of what New Zealand looks like when things aren’t going their way. They are simply not used to being under the gun like that and as a result when they are, they make highly uncharacteristic mistakes as their usually unshakable composure shows some cracks. Make New Zealand play catch up rugby and they suddenly become vulnerable. Nevertheless they still showed that they can catch up and quickly. It was only some truly heroic defence by South Africa in the final ten minutes that enabled the Boks to hang onto a two point lead, as New Zealand banged relentlessly on the door.

Meanwhile in Australia, the Wallabies looked dysfunctional against an exceptionally well-drilled and focused Pumas side. The difference between the two was there for all to see. Argentina played as a well-oiled group of skilled players with everyone seeming to know exactly what they were supposed to do for the full eighty minutes. Australia meanwhile played as a disorganised group of highly talented individuals, none of whom seemed to be cognizant of any kind of game plan whatsoever. There is no denying the ability Australia possesses but against Argentina it just wasn’t harnessed into a collective effort. While the calls for Coach Michael Cheika’s head have increased since the match, we share the common belief that a year out from the World Cup this would be a serious mistake. Cheika has a good team, he just needs it to click, something Australia seem to have a habit of doing once the World Cup actually gets underway.

As for Argentina they seemed to have weathered the storm of a coaching change a year out from the World Cup exceptionally well. We always felt that Ledesma was likely to be the breath of fresh air that a talented group of players needed, and so far we haven’t been proved wrong. Watching the post match press conference it was clear that Ledesma has developed an instant and effective rapport with his players that increases by the minute as the results continue to roll in. Just like they did a year out from the last global showdown in 2015, Argentina are suddenly starting to look like the dark horse they seem to always be around World Cup time. Let’s face it after the results of Round 4, Ireland ranked second after New Zealand, are perhaps feeling a tad more nervous about the World Cup. Their likely quarter-final opponents are South Africa which if they survive that match is probably going to be followed by a semi-final date with the Pumas – shades of 2015 again anyone?

Anyway without any further ado here are our five talking points for what should be a thrilling weekend of Test Rugby in Round 5 of the Rugby Championship.

South Africa vs Australia,
Saturday, September 29th
Port Elizabeth

South Africa return home triumphant, after their epic win over New Zealand in Round 4. Their confidence from that victory will be at an all time high, while the Wallabies head out on the road after recording only one win in the Championship so far. Australia know they need to be dramatically better than they were against Argentina in the last round, but against a Springbok side that have suddenly found their groove and in front of an ecstatic home crowd, the Wallabies have set themselves an exceptionally difficult task. Port Elizabeth has traditionally been kind to the Springboks and the home crowd will do everything in their power to ensure that this reputation continues.

Australia need to play as a team

Australia’s talents, especially in the backs are there for all to see, however against Argentina they tended to play as individuals rather than as a team. Consequently, key linkages were missed and plays rarely seemed to be connected, relying instead on individual opportunism with little support from the rest of the team. On Saturday, they will really need to develop some forward parity with South Africa while at the same time harness this to a clearly defined strategy of releasing their world-class backs – something we simply didn’t see against Argentina.

South Africa will be exceptionally difficult to beat up front

While we wish Australia the very best of luck on Saturday, we are really finding it difficult to see how they are going to be able to gain much traction against a fearsome looking Springbok forward pack, that really clicked into gear in New Zealand. We were delighted to see the one potential weak link in South Africa’s scrum, Tighthead Prop Frans Malherbe really step up to the plate in New Zealand. South Africa may be missing Warren Whiteley who played out of his skin in Wellington, but it is still a daunting set of eight that will take on a Wallaby front row that faltered against the Pumas, a second row that simply came off second best especially at lineout time and a back row that is still struggling to click despite the presence of legends like David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Australia’s problems here aren’t going to get any easier once the Springbok bench comes into play as their front row replacements are of exceptionally solid calibre especially with Steven Kitshoff. Add into the mix the truly awe-inspiring figure of lock RG Snyman and flanker Marco van Staden who has been impressive at the Bulls and Australia will continue to struggle to get the upper hand. Without any kind of forward parity on Saturday, Australia simply won’t be able to give their world-class backs the opportunities they need. We fear it’s going to be a long day at the coal face for Australia on Saturday.

The Wallaby fly half question

We thought after Round 4 that Australia might have made some changes here, especially against a team possessing enough forward prowess to completely suffocate any kind of open play and space, exactly the kind of environment Kurtley Beale needs to operate in if he is to create any kind of magic from the fly half position. We’d argue that either Bernard Foley or Matt Toomua are better at managing games from such close quarters. However, Foley remains relegated to the bench and Toomua to inside centre, a decision we feel that Australia are likely to regret on Saturday.

Have Australia learnt anything from Round 4?

In a similar vein to our last point, we continue to be surprised to see no changes to the composition of Australia’s back field. We think Australia would get a lot more out of their attacks if they resort to a more tried and trusted formula of having Kurtley Beale alongside Reece Hodge at centre, and Folau back at fullback rather than on the wing. Furthermore, move Dane Haylett-Petty back to the wing and Matt Toomua out of centre and into the halfback position. The current setup simply didn’t seem to work against Argentina, and against a powerful and dominant Springbok forward unit we just can’t see it getting the space it needs to operate in once more. Folau gives Australia better defensive options under the high ball at fullback, while Hodge is a bruising runner and tackler and also has a lethal boot to get Australia out of danger. Beale seems to operate better in the loose play of the centre channels leaving Hodge to do the contact work. While Haylett-Petty performed well at times in the fullback position against the Pumas, it is on the wing where we feel his pace and skill is at its most dangerous. We wish Coach Michael Cheika well here on Saturday, but if this backfires once more then he is likely to expose himself to yet more criticism and calls for his head.

Have South Africa finally found the way to use Elton Jantjies?

As regular readers know we don’t have much faith in Jantjies as a Test level fly half, however in New Zealand he performed admirably once he came off the bench. Perhaps this is the way forward, as he finds the pressure of playing in the starting berth at number 10 too much. When he came on in Wellington, although New Zealand were putting South Africa under increasing pressure he seemed to take confidence from the fact that South Africa had still outsmarted their All Black foes for the first hour. Perhaps he simply performs better when he has to maintain rather than establish a system of game management, as was the case in Wellington.

Cheslin Kolbe vs Marika Koroibete – the most fascinating contest on the field

Much of what happens here on Saturday will dictate how this game ends up playing out. Koroibete is a big man who is exceptionally difficult to stop once he has a head of steam, however, his defensive liabilities are well documented, and the tiny and elusive figure of Cheslin Kolbe will be a real challenge for him. On the other hand should Koroibete get released down the wing, despite Kolbe’s bravery we just can’t help feeling that this is a serious mismatch in size and could go horribly wrong for South Africa.

Verdict

Given our concerns above, particularly in Australia’s back field composition, and South Africa’s clear dominance up front it is difficult to see anything other than a Springbok win. Yes, you could argue that South Africa didn’t manage to pull it off against the Wallabies in Round 3. However, they then went on to beat New Zealand in Wellington while the Wallabies with this lineup lost at home to Argentina. The Wallabies consequently have more to prove than South Africa, but they are a long way from home and South Africa will be riding a wave of confidence and euphoria from their supporters that will be hard to contain. We were proven dramatically wrong in our predictions in Round 4 when we essentially wrote South Africa off against New Zealand. While we were more than happy to eat our words once Nigel Owens blew the final whistle, we have trouble believing that we will be doing the same once Jerome Garces calls time in Port Elizabeth this weekend. Consequently we are giving this one to South Africa by eight points on Saturday!

Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, September 29th
Buenos Aires

We’d like to thank Mario Ledesma and his men for proving us right in Round 4, by getting the Pumas a long overdue win on Australian soil. While many had Australia taking the victory, after watching the Pumas put in such a huge effort against New Zealand in Round 3, we were convinced that a big win on the road was theirs for the taking. If it makes any sense Australia weren’t overly convincing in their Round 3 win over the Springboks, whereas the Pumas made everyone sit up and take notice in their loss to New Zealand. The Pumas look like a team whereas Australia still look like a group of individuals, albeit highly talented ones.

Despite this though, even at home and buoyed by that win over Australia we still feel that the Pumas’ first All Black scalp is not quite up for grabs yet this Saturday in Buenos Aires. New Zealand are smarting from their loss to South Africa in Round 4, and sadly Argentina are going the feel the full force of that disappointment despite a sellout crowd of passionate fans wishing for the opposite. New Zealand are missing a key presence in the shape of Captain Kieran Read, but it is still a team that is more than capable of setting the record straight in terms of New Zealand’s dominance of Test Rugby despite the upset of Round 4. Either way a great match should be in prospect and one which we are really looking forward to.

The fade factor

We’ll get the elephant out of the room first. We have always traditionally looked forward to the Pumas last two home games in the Championship, as we feel that at home in front of their passionate supporters they can really turn it up another level. However, in recent years we have to confess to having been slightly disappointed, as the Pumas seem to run out of puff in the final two rounds despite home advantage. Nevertheless, this year we feel that Argentina are much less likely to disappoint. They will be clearly riding a wave of confidence brought about by two wins and their best ever Rugby Championship campaign since joining the competition in 2012. While we still feel that a victory over the All Blacks may be too much to hope for, a strong performance in this match should set them up well for their final match and a possible second victory over the Wallabies a week later.

Who will kick for New Zealand?

Beauden Barrett may be one of , if not the best, fly halves in the world, but of increasing concern to New Zealand management is his inconsistency in goal kicking. There is no doubt that key points were left behind in their Round 4 match against South Africa which ultimately meant the difference between winning and losing. Without the services of Damian McKenzie as backup this weekend, the next most likely candidate is Jordi Barrett but he is also not in the matchday 23. Consequently it will be left to replacement fly half Richie Mo’unga to make amends with the boot if the contest is one in which such points could make the difference.

The return of Sonny Bill Williams

To be honest this is another puzzling call for us. New Zealand selectors seem to have a fascination with Williams that in our opinion doesn’t quite match up to recent form. We don’t deny that he has made considerable impact in an All Black jersey in years gone by, but recently we see it less and less and see him as a rather predictable player these days. For us, the Crotty/Goodhue partnership alternating with Anton Liennert-Brown is clearly the way forward for New Zealand come the World Cup. Consequently, we are looking at Williams inclusion in the starting XV as an investment in back up depth for the World Cup, despite the media’s excitement about his return and nothing more.

The return of the Pumas scrum prowess

Coach Mario Ledesma has clearly lamented the decline of one of Argentina’s traditional strengths. Will we see a return of one of the Pumas legendary weapons in the shape of Ramiro Herrera, Agustin Creevy and Nahuel Tetaz on Saturday? Herrera and Creevy have a long history together and their partnership adds a great deal of weight and experience to the Pumas front row campaign. Herrera has been plying his trade in France this year, and his return to the Pumas fold will be welcomed by many Argentinian supporters, after previous Coach Daniel Hourcade’s stance of not including overseas based players. This should make for a great contest with the relatively less experienced but exceptionally capable All Black front row.

How much will Argentina miss Ramiro Moyano?

When you have a player who can do this………A LOT!!!

Matias Moroni moves from the centre to cover for Moyano this weekend who is absent due to injury. Moroni is a fine player in his own right but is clearly happier and more effective up the centre channels. There is no question that Argentina has produced some fantastic wingers in the last five years – Santiago Cordero, Ramiro Moyano and most recently Bautista Delguy are just a few examples. If Moyano can keep New Zealand’s Naholo in check, without necessarily creating the magic that Moyano is capable of then Argentina should feel more confident, as Delguy on the opposite wing should be able to provide more than enough spark when needed.

Verdict

Without some key personnel, New Zealand will not quite be the side that ultimately dismantled Argentina a month ago. However, after the loss to South Africa they will have a point to prove and even a long way from home and in the noise of the Estadio José Amalfitani, they will be very hard to beat by a determined and confident Pumas side. If the Pumas can go into half time with not only a lead but a strong lead, then there is the whiff of yet another huge upset in this year’s Championship. As much as we would love to see that happen in terms of the impact it would have on the global game, we just don’t see it. Consequently, Argentina to put in another performance demonstrating moments of sheer genius and a solid team effort, but New Zealand to ultimately pull away with it by 13 points!

 

We learnt three things last weekend as Round 3 of the Championship wrapped up. Firstly, New Zealand are seemingly invincible whether or not they put out their first, second or third string teams. The Pumas are back with a vengeance and along with New Zealand are playing the most attractive and exciting rugby in the Competition. Lastly, South Africa and Australia are just not clicking and are in serious danger of duking it out for the wooden spoon, especially if Argentina get a win over the Wallabies this Saturday.

The match in Nelson between the All Blacks and the Pumas was classic Test rugby and a worthy spectacle that kept us glued to our seats, much more than the 46-24 scoreline for New Zealand would suggest. There was some spectacular attacking rugby from both sides, and Argentina were unlucky to be denied a try by the narrowest of margins. It was high-octane rugby played at a blistering pace by both sides with some outstanding displays of skill. Argentina may have come away with a loss, but the standard to which they played and the skill and composure they showed will put them in good stead for an encounter with a Wallaby side who are clearly struggling to shape an identity. New Zealand meanwhile showcased the truly staggering depth of talent they have available to them a year out from the World Cup. There were a raft of names we may not have been that familiar with on Saturday, but they all stood up and made us take notice.

The same could not be said of the contest between Australia and South Africa in Brisbane. It was a scrappy and unattractive game with little imagination or creativity on display from either side. Australia in the end did enough to get the win, but there was little else to celebrate. Australia could argue they were without key playmakers in fullback Israel Folau and back rower extraordinaire David Pocock. However, if they are to really challenge for the World Cup next year, they need to lay down some markers without these two key players, but there was little on display last Saturday to make that look like much of a possibility. South Africa meanwhile simply had no shape or cohesion, and apart from some acts of individual brilliance they once again showed what a poor team they have become on the road, leaving one with little confidence in their abilities next year in Japan. In short, a poor game between two sides that looked distinctly average for the full eighty minutes.

For Australia and South Africa, this coming weekend could further erode the confidence both teams seem to be lacking. New Zealand looks to teach South Africa yet another painful lesson about life on the road and a hungry Pumas side looks set to cause Australia a multitude of problems.

On that note here are our five talking points for each match.

New Zealand vs South Africa
Saturday, September 15th
Wellington

While the result may not be in doubt, there are a multitude of questions, particularly in relation to South Africa that will need answering on Saturday in Wellington. South Africa’s abysmal record away from home is unlikely to change this weekend at the hands of a ruthless and merciless opponent in the shape of New Zealand. It is a sad reflection of where South African rugby now finds itself, that a fixture that would once have been one of the highlights of everyone’s rugby calendar no matter who they supported, has now degenerated into a rather predictable and one-sided affair – at least when it is played in New Zealand.

New Zealand however, are taking no chances this weekend and still regard the Springboks as a daunting and potentially troublesome opponent. The memory of the match between these two in Cape Town last year will still be fresh in Coach Steve Hansen’s memory.  A side the All Blacks had blitzed 57-0 earlier in the Championship last year, suddenly turned up and ran them close, losing by just one point. Nevertheless the Springboks at home are a different animal, and while we don’t see the same kind of scoreline in prospect this coming Saturday, we are still expecting a fairly sizeable points difference in the All Blacks favor when referee Nigel Owens blows the final whistle.

The Springbok scrum is likely to be the start of South Africa’s undoing, especially at tighthead

Don’t get us wrong, Malcolm Marx is a truly remarkable hooker and one of the best in the modern game, but even he seems to be misfiring at key moments this season. Steven Kitshoff is also a very fine player, but sadly both he and Marx will show their brilliance in individual play rather than hard at work in the engine room of the scrum.However, it’s Frans Malherbe at tighthead who seems to be a consistent problem for South Africa and a cause of their undoing in this part of the park, much the same as Ruan Dreyer was last season. Expect to see Wilco Louw on sooner rather than later.

The Hooker and Prop are enormous talents and exceptional strike threats in their own right. However, for us Marx has not quite been up to the standards we have come to expect from this remarkable player. His lineout throwing has been a bit hit and miss and he hasn’t been the turnover animal he was last year. South Africa need the Marx edition that caused New Zealand such a headache last year in Cape Town. Kitshoff may struggle in the scrums but he is exceptionally dangerous once play has broken up, and he is someone South Africa will be really counting on to bring the unexpected.

Back row imbalance continues for South Africa

With Pieter-Steph du Toit out of position once more, Warren Whiteley seeming a shadow of himself and only Siya Kolisi really able to cause a stir in the loose, this is a trio struggling to find some much-needed cohesion. All three of these players are world-class in their own right but sadly they seem to be unsure of what is expected of them as a unit. What has concerned us most is how quiet Whiteley has been during this tournament.

Jantjies didn’t have a good game last weekend, but let’s be honest Pollard hasn’t looked the part either

Elton Jantjies did nothing last weekend to convince us that he is any closer to being a Test fly half, but by the same token Handre Pollard also hasn’t been the Messiah that everyone is touting him to be. We hate being down on players, but have really struggled to find much hope for South Africa in the halfback position. We, like many, felt that Pollard was the answer, but so far this year, with the exception of the two England Tests in June he started in, Pollard like Whiteley simply hasn’t turned up. His goalkicking is beyond poor and his game management has looked unsure and distinctly average. He is going to get tested to the limit by the world’s best player in the shape of New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett, and sadly we feel that he is once more going to be outplayed. Barrett is likely to throw him off his game, and Pollard seems to go to pieces under that kind of pressure.

With Ryan Crotty back, New Zealand surely have their starting centre pairing/bench for the World Cup

There was much talk this week of Sonny Bill Williams’ return to the bench for New Zealand at centre. However, as regular readers of this blog know we just don’t see the fascination with the man. For us, the Ryan Crotty/Anton Lienert-Brown combination is the way forward for New Zealand as it packs so much power and creativity, whereas with Williams in the mix it becomes slightly more one-dimensional, albeit with plenty of brute force. Now that we are all familiar with Jack Goodhue who will be on the bench in place of Williams, we feel that this is the centre trio that is likely to be developed as Steve Hansen’s first choice for the World Cup.

Meanwhile South Africa’s centre pairing also gets changed around but we are not holding our breadth

Sure Damian de Allende didn’t have a bad game last weekend, but that’s about all you could say for it. Jesse Kriel remains one of the most predictable centres in Test Rugby, which has led Coach Rassie Erasmus to put him out on the wing, a position he is not familiar with and to make matters worse, he will be trying to shut down one of the most exciting new talents in New Zealand and Test rugby Rieko Ioane. We wish him well but can’t help feeling that he is in for a long and uncomfortable night as a result. Lukhanyo Am has shown some real brilliance against weaker teams, but up against the All Blacks’ Ryan Crotty we fear he is about to have the ultimate defensive test. In short, we fear South Africa are going to get cut to pieces up the middle of the park on Saturday.

Verdict

We don’t predict the kind of blowout we saw in this fixture last year, but it still isn’t going to be comfortable viewing for Springbok supporters. New Zealand are fielding a much more ominous looking bench, and once the sixty minute mark ticks over on the clock expect to see New Zealand run riot on the scoreboard. Till then South Africa should be much more competitive, despite leaking a few tries, but at the same time scoring the odd try of their own. Ultimately though, trying to get a win from a seemingly unstoppable All Black express and on home ground to boot, is completely beyond this Springbok team in their current state, despite some of the talent they have at their disposal. As a result the Springboks should be in the match for a longer spell than last year, but ultimately end up on the wrong side of the score sheet by a considerable margin. New Zealand to run away with it in the final quarter by 50-12!

Australia vs Argentina
Saturday, September 15th
Gold Coast

Given the rather predictable outcome of the first match this Saturday, this game is likely to be the highlight of the weekend. Both sides will be looking to get their second win of the Championship, with Argentina looking perhaps like the more tricky opponent after the scintillating attacking rugby they put on display against New Zealand last Saturday. Against any other team other than the All Blacks that would have been a match winning performance, and expect them to bring that same can do attitude and sublime skill set to Australia.

Australia meanwhile breathe a huge sigh of relief as two of their star playmakers, fullback Israel Folau and back rower David Pocock return to the starting lineup. However in Folau’s case he finds himself on the wing, and we feel that this may be something Michael Cheika may regret as it is not a position he plays regularly and will be up against a very impressive and elusive looking Ramiro Moyano for Argentina. Australia need to find the kind of creativity that we know they are capable of if they are to get past a very capable and well-drilled Pumas side, and thus avoid a race to the bottom with South Africa.

Is this the match where we see Argentina reassert some of their traditional scrum dominance?

Coach Mario Ledesma has spent much of the week bemoaning the deterioration in one of Argentina’s traditional strengths – the scrum. Under his tutelage given his own personal experience at the coal face in a Pumas jersey, you’d think he could start to get Argentina back to the kind of form in this part of the park that made them such a fearsome force in years gone by. They will be up against it as Australia do seem to have made some progress here, albeit even though many of the same disciplinary problems still plague them. If Argentina can combine power with discipline here then this could signal a healthy return to one of their core strengths, especially as we really liked the effort their replacements put in last week against New Zealand.

Argentina are going to cause Australia all kinds of problems at lineout time

Now that Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini is playing with his head instead of his heart, despite needing the biggest box of tissues of any Pumas player during the national anthems, the Pumas are packing some real firepower here. With Guido Petti alongside him who is able to work magic with any spilled ball in the lineout, this is a very difficult Pumas unit to deal with and one which Australia are going to have to be at their defensive best to contain.

Even with David Pocock Australia are going to have their work cut out coping with the Pumas back row

Once more we fear that David Pocock is going to be asked to singlehandedly perform miracles for Australia here, against a fearsome Pumas unit that is firing on all cylinders. Javier Ortega Desio, Marcos Kremer and Pablo Matera are gelling exceptionally well as a unit, and the bench replacement Juan Manuel Leguizamon is no stranger to this kind of high stakes match. This is Pumas power at its best, and in many ways has compensated for the dip in their scrummaging prowess, as their loose forwards have become a complete menace.

The Kurtley Beale experiment

Although he can play at number 10, we just don’t feel that this is where Beale should be for Australia. Consequently, given that we felt he was rather quiet and invisible for Australia in this position last week, we were more than a little surprised to see his name on the team sheet at fly half and Bernard Foley once more on the bench. The pressures of overall game management seem to put Beale in a straitjacket and constrict the kind of blink of an eye creativity he is able to produce from running the centre channels. We don’t really understand Coach Michael Cheika’s logic in this decision, especially given Argentina’s current prowess at fly half and in the centres, as this kind of creativity and opportunism is exactly what is needed against a set of very pacey and elusive backs.

Why do you need to swap Folau out onto the wing and put Haylett-Petty at fullback?

Much like the Beale experiment we are feeling slightly perplexed at Coach Michael Cheika’s rationale once more. While Haylett-Petty can play fullback, his role as the last line of defense is likely to constrict the kind of creativity he is able to produce out wide, especially given his speed. If we had been making the calls we would have preferred to see Reece Hodge at fullback and Haylett-Petty back in his more traditional spot on the wing. Given Folau’s recent injury we also thought it would have been better to bring him on as an impact substitution in the final quarter, especially if by that stage Argentina are controlling the game to their advantage. We feel that Hodge is a better defensive option, if not at fullback where his massive boot would have come in handy, then at least out on the wing trying to contain Argentinian danger man Bautista Delguy.

Verdict

The general media consensus is, that despite Australia’s poor form of late, home advantage should seal them a win over an Argentinian team that traditionally tends to have a little less than required in the tank for this match after facing up to the All Blacks the week before. However, we beg to differ. Argentina are looking once more like the side that tends to peak just at the right time to cause some real havoc at the World Cup. Therefore we are bucking the odds and saying a fired up Pumas team, that is clearly on an upwards trajectory with all signs pointing to Japan next year, will take what should be a thrilling and absorbing contest by two points!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our previews with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there, subscribe and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content.

The second round of the Rugby Championship dispelled any rumors of an Australian comeback, while the new-found optimism surrounding South Africa seemed to evaporate quickly. New Zealand as expected were clearly in a league of their own, with fly half Beauden Barrett producing a Man of the Match performance for the record books. However, the big surprise package was Argentina. We had a hunch that the Pumas under new Coach Mario Ledesma were likely to be a different animal than the one we saw in June. In their first outing against South Africa there were hints of a transformation in progress, but with plenty of kinks to work out. However, it appeared that they only needed a week to sort things out, as they put in an outstanding performance in Round 2 in Mendoza and blew a bewildered Springbok side off the park. There is no question that New Zealand in their current form are clearly a bridge too far for anyone. However, South Africa are already limping from a Pumas mauling and Australia will be no doubt feeling more than a little anxious about the South Americans.

New Zealand were remarkable in Round 2, and at least against Australia seemed to settle into a pattern by the 35th minute of both matches. Unlike last year, Australia were completely unable to hold a candle to their trans Tasman rivals, and there was no second half or second leg revival of Wallaby fortunes. The All Blacks seem to hit their straps between the 35 and 38 minute mark, and after that it is all over but the crying for their opponents. Australia look a shadow of the side that produced so much spirit last year against New Zealand in Bledisloe 2. Disorganised and looking woefully short on fitness, the Wallabies just don’t look the part this year and even the older and wiser heads in the squad seem reluctant to steer a floundering ship.

The Pumas treated us to a thrilling and clinical performance at South Africa’s expense in Mendoza in Round 2, getting a thoroughly deserved win over the Springboks in the process. The Springboks simply couldn’t get a game plan going, and their suspect defence in the backs was exposed by the Pumas lethal back line, while their forwards more than held their own against South Africa’s traditional dominance up front. Argentina will travel to New Zealand feeling confident that they can certainly provide a worthy challenge to the Men in Black, and while few see an upset on the cards, New Zealand is clearly treating the Pumas challenge with the respect it deserves. South Africa meanwhile travel to Australia desperately seeking to turn things around, but let’s be honest their track record on the road doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

On that note here are our five talking points for each match.

New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday, September 8th
Nelson

While the result may perhaps be a foregone conclusion, even with the experimentation in the All Black side, we still feel that this should be a highly entertaining match from both sides. It is worth bearing in mind that in this fixture last year the Pumas headed into the tunnel at half time in the lead. Even though New Zealand inevitably seems to pull away dramatically from the Pumas in the final quarter, the South Americans put up a worthy challenge, and certainly do not seem intimidated by playing the All Blacks in their own backyard. If Argentina are able to play well on Saturday and even keep within 10 points of the All Blacks, the Wallabies are likely to feel more than a little anxious about meeting them in a week’s time. Argentina seem on a good trajectory with their new Coach Mario Ledesma, and if you look at history they seem to be on a similar path to where they were a year before the last World Cup with a raft of exciting talent.

New Zealand are not underestimating their opponent but clearly see this match as an opportunity to give some of their less experienced players an opportunity to prove themselves against a tough challenge. New Zealand know they have the depth and as a result are much more comfortable than other teams to rotate players and build the necessary experience. In short, they can take risks few other teams are able to – such is the confidence in the depth of their player base.

After last week’s heroics – Beauden Barret gets the night off!

In a word remarkable. In 40 years of watching Test rugby, we couldn’t remember a performance like Beauden Barrett’s in Round 2. He may not quite be the tactician that some argue he should be, and his goalkicking is just a shade short of the accuracy demanded at this level, but when you can do this what does it really matter?!!!! His ability to read the ebb and flow of a match and take the opportunities that are then presented in the blink of an eye is unequalled in Test rugby. In short, a truly unique player. While he may not have the big picture sensibilities of his predecessor Dan Carter especially under pressure, not that there are many sides who can put him under pressure, there is no denying that he is likely to be remembered as one of the great players of this generation.

Richie Mo’unga finally gets the first dance!

All eyes will be on the Crusaders fly half on Saturday night in Nelson. He has been the talk of the season, with many seeing him as the natural understudy to Barrett for the number 10 jersey. Some have even said that he should be sharing the starting duties with Barrett, but after Barrett’s exploits in Bledisloe 2, Mo’unga will have to produce something pretty special to make the incumbent feel he needs to watch his rear view mirror more closely. New Zealand has two World Class number nines, and if they can use this Championship to develop two number 10s of equal calibre then there won’t be many people betting against them in Japan next year. Mo’unga looks the complete package and has plenty of X-factor of his own, he simply lacks international experience – something which the All Black management will no doubt be seeking to address as the countdown to Japan is now in full swing.

The return of the pocket rocket!

We are delighted to see the return of winger Nehe Milner-Skudder after a long battle with injury since the last World Cup. He was one of the players of the year leading up to the last World Cup for us, and we are really hoping that Saturday will mark the start of a significant contribution by Milner-Skudder to New Zealand’s World Cup campaign. Fast and elusive but also exceptionally strong in defence, he is a player we find exceptionally exciting to watch. His defensive abilities will be key in keeping the Pumas Ramiro Moyano in check, as the Argentinian winger is looking decidedly dangerous.

The Matera factor

When the team sheets came out yesterday, many people ourselves included were surprised to see flanker Pablo Matera starting on the bench. On reflection, we actually see this as a stroke of genius. There are going to be some really hard-fought battles between the second and back rows in Nelson with both sides packing some impressive firepower. We feel that the Pumas back row in particular is one of the most impressive looking units in Test rugby right now. Matera gives his starting spot to Tomas Lezana who has consistently impressed us even in Argentina’s poor showings in June. Consequently, Lezana should be able to more than hold his own, and then at the juncture when the Pumas traditionally start to fade in the final quarter, in comes the leadership of Matera to take over from starting Captain Agustin Creevy who rarely lasts beyond sixty minutes against New Zealand. Matera is no stranger now to the Captain’s jersey and his presence in the final quarter will hopefully do much to keep the fires burning that Creevy is so good at starting. If the Pumas forwards are able to keep parity with New Zealand for much of the match then New Zealand’s backs may not quite have the kind of free rein they have become accustomed to.

Will this be the game where the Pumas finally go eighty minutes against the All Blacks?

Looking at the bench for the Pumas, we can’t help feeling that this is Argentina’s key objective for Saturday. Their track record of fading dramatically in the final quarter against New Zealand is well documented. If they really want to go the distance next year in Japan, then staying within reach of a team like New Zealand right to the end must surely be something they will want to work towards. Without any disrespect to one of our favorite teams, we just can’t see Argentina pulling off the first big upset in the Southern Hemisphere this season. However, what we do feel they are setting their sights on is trying to stay within ten points right up to the final whistle. While even this may be a challenge, we feel that it is not beyond the realm of possibility and would be a huge confidence boost for the South Americans heading into their match against Australia the following weekend.

Verdict

Beating the All Blacks in their own backyard is a challenge similar to lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan next year. Argentina will bring plenty of firepower and passion to the cause this weekend, but it is unlikely to be enough to take down a team that is constantly setting new benchmarks. With all the changes being made by New Zealand however, this is perhaps Argentina’s best shot, short of playing them in Argentina, of walking away with a result that still has them in touch with the scoreline at the final whistle. New Zealand to walk away comfortable winners in the end by 12 points, but are likely to face their most unpredictable opponent of the season so far this year.

Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, September 8th
Brisbane

Australia imploded a second time against the All Blacks in Round 2, appearing to be a team that had little to offer past the forty minute mark both in terms of fitness and skill. South Africa once more showed that they are a team that struggles to achieve success away from home – slightly worrying when you consider that the entire World Cup takes place a very long way from home.

We had hoped that despite the odds seeming to be against them, Australia would pull off the kind of performance they did last year in Round 2 of the Championship in Dunedin after everyone had written them off. It wasn’t to be and unlike last year, Australia seem to be struggling much more with their identity as a team. Their fitness levels look suspect and the drive that we saw last year appears to be lacking at times. Furthermore, despite some exceptional talent, especially in the backs there has been little on display that would indicate that Australia in their current state know how to use that talent. Add into the mix an overwhelming reliance on loose forward David Pocock to constantly get Australia out of jail, and Australia simply look disjointed and short of ideas, despite the genius of playmakers like centre Kurtley Beale.

All the promise that South Africa showed during the Series victory against England in June and the opening round of the Championship against Argentina, seemed to evaporate in the Mendoza sunshine. South Africa got bossed around up front in no uncertain terms by a better organised and disciplined Pumas forward pack. Handre Pollard failed to exert any control over the game from the half back position, unlike his Pumas opposite number Nicolas Sanchez who controlled the Argentinian game plan with Swiss like precision. Finally a lethal Pumas set of backs cut South Africa’s already suspect defences to shreds. South Africa simply have to do better and must surely have struggled to find answers to their rather alarming dip in form.

South Africa’s track record away from home is starting to read like a script from the “Walking Dead”

There is no getting away from the fact that if you lose enough times under certain circumstances it starts to affect you psychologically and that must surely be a problem facing South Africa as they start a two-week tour of Australasia. Since the World Cup in 2015 South Africa have only won three games outside of South Africa. Whichever way you cut it that make for scary reading. While they didn’t actually lose this fixture last year in Australia, they only managed a draw which is scant consolation. South Africa clearly have a problem on the road, and somehow need to find some quick and lasting answers before their big road show next year in Japan.

Were Coaches Rassie Erasmus and Michael Cheika sharing a few friendly prematch pints when they came up with the teamsheets for this match?

Like us, we imagine you were fairly surprised to say the least when you saw the lineups for such a crucial match for both sides. Sure we respect the need for squad development ahead of the World Cup, but in a match both sides have to win do you really want to be that experimental? Sure in South Africa’s case a few of their players were clearly not at their best in Argentina, but is wholesale change the way to develop the skills and confidence needed at this stage? A bad day at the office at Test level is a lot like falling off a horse, the most important thing is to get back on it. In South Africa’s case, Hooker Malcolm Marx and Handre Pollard may have fluffed their lines at times in Mendoza but they are still the way forward for South Africa in both positions. Fullback Willie le Roux, lock Eben Etzebeth and prop Frans Malherbe also had poor games, but you don’t see them being replaced, though in Malherbe’s case that is puzzling to say the least.

For Australia, fly half Bernard Foley lost the plot in Round 2 quite badly but we’re not sure that switching centre Kurtley Beale to number 10 is the answer either. Beale is more likely to create the magic he is known for as a free agent in the centres than in a game management role. Oh well pass us that pint will you?

This must surely be Elton Jantjies’ last chance saloon?

Continuing on the above theme, we really are scratching our heads on this one. We hate to be down on a player, but as we have said time and again and as is borne out in hard evidence through results, Elton Jantjies is not a Test level fly half and especially not on the road. While he may be a fine player at Super Rugby level, he seems poorly suited to the pressure and decision-making required at Test level. All too often he resorts to an erratic and pointless kicking game which throws away any possession and momentum South Africa may have gained. Saturday is surely his last chance to prove he has what it takes. If it doesn’t go well in such do or die matches as Saturday, then he surely becomes the reserve number 10 to Pollard till a more suitable replacement can be found. If he does prove us all wrong on Saturday, and for his sake we sincerely hope he does, then South Africa has a real dilemma as to whether or not he starts an even bigger match against the All Blacks the following week, considering how badly he was schooled in New Zealand last year in the same fixture.

How much will Australia miss David Pocock?

As you may recall from previous blogs, we have enormous respect for Australia’s David Pocock and consider him to be one of the finest exponents of the modern game, both in terms of skill and sportsmanship. However, as he singlehandedly and tirelessly attempted to dig Australia out of the hole that was Bledisloe 2 a fortnight ago, with little or no constructive support from his teammates, you have to wonder for how long he can keep it up. He was clearly showing the physical strain two weeks ago especially as he is only recently returned from injury. Without him on Saturday night, Australia are likely to be a shadow of their potential in this part of the park, but this is a golden opportunity for the back row trio of Samu, Hooper and Tui to really find the glue that gives them the advantage over a Springbok unit that is struggling with cohesion and direction.

South Africa has to click defensively at the back

South Africa’s defensive woes are now well documented, especially out wide. However, once more we are surprised at the tinkering for such a key match. We thought Centre Andre Esterhuizen had played well on attack and defence, Partnered with Jessie Kriel he would have been a more solid defensive option than Damian de Allende, who much like Elton Jantjies is simply not a Test level player despite whatever form he may have in Super Rugby. Furthemore, we just can’t see Cheslin Kolbe getting the better of Australia’s Jack Maddocks once these two come off the bench for their respective sides. We predict trouble here as Australia are packing some potent attacking threats in Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty, Marika Koroibete and the incomparable Israel Folau. If Kurtley Beale is really able get this four into space it is going to be a very long and uncomfortable day a the office for South Africa.

Verdict

Both sides head into this match under enormous pressure, which makes some of the team selections all the more bizarre. However, despite this we still feel that Australia have made a better go of it, and there is no question that they pack a lethal set of backs that will make life exceptionally difficult for South Africa. Furthermore, it’s Brisbane and Suncorp Stadium which is an exceptionally happy hunting ground for the Wallabies. Add into the mix a strange selection policy by South Africa, even allowing for some of the political vagaries that inevitably affect it, South Africa’s truly dismal track record away from home and the contest clearly favors Australia. Having said that we still expect a tight match, as there is enough collective talent within this misshapen South African squad which if it clicks could be one of the surprises of the tournament. However, when all is said and done and referee Glen Jackson blows the final whistle we expect to see Australia walk away withe spoils by five points!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our previews with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content.

After Round 1 we still hold that this is going to be one of the most open Rugby Championships in years – between three teams that is! New Zealand may trip at the odd hurdle, and the possibility of one upset in Pretoria at the end of the tournament is not beyond the realm of possibility. However, seeing any team other than the All Blacks lifting the trophy on October 6th is hard to imagine. What we do expect to see though is an exceptionally feisty competition amongst the other three competitors, and in the process a much closer race than we are used to seeing in recent times.

It was a fascinating opening weekend. The All Blacks once more showed some vulnerabilities that could have been exploited by Australia had they not decided to implode at the 35th minute. Australia looked weaker in many ways than they did in their initial first half blowout last year to the All Blacks in Bledisloe 1. New Zealand looked shaky at the beginning with a plethora of uncharacteristic errors, but once they clicked into gear we got a frightening foretaste of what the rest of the world is likely to be up against leading up to Japan. Unlike last year, Australia simply got worse as the match wore on. There were concerns again about New Zealand’s goal kicking when left to Beauden Barrett, and had he had his kicking boots on the score would have been much more humiliating for the Wallabies. However, his control of the game and brilliance in open play more than made up for any inaccuracies from the kicking tee.

Meanwhile in Durban, the Springboks got the job done, and they clearly improved as the match wore on while the Pumas started to fade. Nevertheless, there was no question that despite some problems Argentina, under new Coach Mario Ledesma, mean business. As their first outing under new management, we felt it wasn’t all that bad and there was enough evidence out on the pitch that this side should only get better. The Pumas biggest challenge will be to build the momentum to the point that, come their final two home games, they can provide a serious challenge to New Zealand and Australia and not fade away as they have done in the past for these two fixtures. South Africa struggled in the first half, but improved dramatically as the match wore on and players settled into their roles. There are defensive liabilities in the backs, despite the brilliance in attack by players such as Lukhanyo Am, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Makazole Mapimpi and the Springbok back row were working overtime on occasion against their Pumas opposite numbers. On the flip side South Africa really seemed to be building on the momentum they gained during their Series win against England. Add further finesse to an already impressive looking forward contingent and a Flash Gordon back line, and it is South Africa who are already looking like the side most likely to challenge New Zealand’s supremacy.  However, there is the small matter of a follow-up date this weekend on Argentinian soil with a Pumas outfit who should be slightly more clinical than they were last weekend.

On that note here are our five talking points for each match.

New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 25th
Auckland

Whichever way you cut it, that was a poor Australian performance last weekend. While it may not have mirrored the first half blowout they experienced last year in the opener against the All Blacks, they struggled to impose any kind of authority after the 35th minute, and their set piece play in particular fell apart. The scrums looked a mess, the lineouts were a bad joke and even Pocock and Hooper were struggling to throw the All Black back row off-balance, despite some brilliant individual efforts. Meanwhile the half backs and back line had a rather quiet night. The Wallabies once more seemed to be struggling with the definition of defence and at times looked a little short in the fitness department.

There is no denying that New Zealand struggled to fire in the first 30 minutes, and some of us actually were starting to think rumors that the mighty black juggernaut was missing some gears might actually be true. They simply looked a long way off their customary polish, and were committing a multitude of uncharacteristic handling errors. It didn’t stay that way for long though and apart from Beauden Barrett’s goalkicking, once the team fired they just looked unstoppable as they proceeded to score tries at will. The ball handling skills on display in the opening try by Aaron Smith were a case in point.

Australia’s scrum goes back to the bad old days of 2016

By the end of last season we really felt that Australia’s scrum had finally sorted itself out, barring the odd hiccough and was well on the way to recovery. What we saw last Saturday completely shattered this belief in a new dawn for Wallaby scrummaging prowess. There is no question that they were at a disadvantage against such an accomplished unit as the one New Zealand brought to the table. However, they just looked lifeless and rudderless. Given the fact that South Africa’s scrum is back to its best and Argentina are looking ominous here once more, this is something Australia is clearly running out of time to fix. We just don’t see much salvation for them this weekend in Auckland.

Are Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick the most terrifying Second Row partnership in Test Rugby?

Yes – enough said! Is there anyone who can really go head to head with these two for eighty minutes – we very much doubt it. Retallick in particular was at his barnstorming best last weekend. If you don’t believe us have a look at this performance by the man who reminds us of Jaws in James Bond! They own the lineout and while Australia’s Adam Coleman will definitely have a crack this weekend, he and his partner Izack Rodda were so far off the mark last Saturday, it’s hard to see anything other than continued all out dominance by the two Kiwi giants.

David Pocock alone cannot rescue Australia

The great man once again showed off his remarkable abilities last Saturday, in one of the few glimpses of genuine Wallaby prowess. While his back row partner Michael Hooper spent far too much time trying to develop a post playing career in refereeing, Pocock was immense for the Wallabies. Furthermore, his genuine concern for All Black centre Ryan Crotty during a nasty head knock, even though Pocock was not involved in the actual passage of play, highlighted the amazing camaraderie and sportsmanship which is still such a huge part of our beloved game. Pocock is without doubt one of Test Rugby’s greats, but despite his remarkable talents Australia are clearly too reliant on him to perform miracles.

Beauden Barrett is not the world’s best goal kicker – but does it really matter?

Sure if he’d brought his radar boots last Saturday, then the score would have been more humiliating for the Wallabies, but when you have the kind of footballing skills that he used to score his own try then we’d argue the goalkicking is simply icing on the cake. Also let’s be honest – he still has a goalkicking success rate of well over 70%. Add that to his mastery of game management and perhaps the only gentleman who can hold a candle to him right now is Ireland’s Johnny Sexton. We simply don’t see the same calibre in any of the other Rugby Championship squads’ offerings.

Can Australia really compete in the backs without Israel Folau?

The loss of Folau for such a crucial match is a clear body blow to Australia. Although Dane Haylett-Petty may be good under the high ball, we thought it would have been wiser to have Reece Hodge and his mighty boot shoring up the last line of defence. Australia’s backs just didn’t fire last weekend, and we have a hunch that they are just as likely to be out of sync this Saturday without Folau. Jack Maddocks scored a fine try on debut, and Australia need much more from Kurtley Beale than his one-off contribution to that effort. Now that we all know who New Zealand’s Jack Goodhue is in no uncertain terms, along with Ngani Laumape and the other All Black suspects it is likely to be a long and painful evening for the Wallabies at Eden Park on Saturday.

Verdict

This time last year many were writing off the Wallabies’ chances in Dunedin after a shambolic performance in the opening round of the Championship. They then proceeded to come within a hair’s breadth of the upset of the tournament by almost beating New Zealand in the second round. The transformation of the Wallabies was quite remarkable, so you may wonder why we don’t think the same is possible this time around. The Wallabies in the second half of Bledisloe 1 last year, despite the horrors of the first, showed some real promise and a sense that they had the belief and skill set to turn things around. We just didn’t see any of those kinds of qualities last Saturday. To dredge them out of nothing and on the road to boot, in one of the most inhospitable places on earth for visiting teams, is just too much to ask. Consequently, at home and on the hallowed and seemingly invincible turf of Eden Park, New Zealand to run away with this one by twenty-five points!

Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 25th
Mendoza

We have to admit to being slightly surprised at the negativity surrounding Argentina’s performance last Saturday. Agreed they lost, and were ultimately comprehensively beaten by a better Springbok side. However, they were leading by 14-10 at half time, and much of what they did put on display in that first forty minutes caught our attention. There was a drive and committment in the squad that we simply didn’t see in June. The players are clearly responding to new Coach Mario Ledesma and feeding off the energy he brought to turning around the Jaguares’ fortunes in the recently concluded Super Rugby tournament.

South Africa got their campaign off to a successful start but were less than happy with many aspects of their game and know they will need to be much more clinical in a tough away fixture against a Pumas side likely to have improved. Fly half Handre Pollard missed far too many kicks which kept Argentina in touch with the scoreline for much of the match. The Springbok backs while being lethal in attack, still looked slightly out of sorts defensively once Argentina managed to build up any kind of flowing attack of their own. Just as he did against England in June, scrum half Faf de Klerk really made the difference in turning what could have been an ordinary Springbok performance into something memorable. We’re a huge fan of the Jack Russell number nine who also seems to be able to tackle way above his pint-sized frame. An absolute nightmare for opposition defences, he will be key to South Africa’s build up to Japan next year. Throw in Hooker extraordinaire Malcolm Marx and South Africa look problematic whichever way you cut it. Enforcer Eben Etzebeth seemed to suffer no side effects from his long layover due to injury and was back to his uncompromising physical best. In short, as the Championship wears on, expect this squad to look more and more like the finished product.

Even if Argentina are able to maintain some kind of scrum parity they won’t be able to contain Malcolm Marx.

With Marx being able to play any part of the park and shore up any shortcomings in the scrum, it will be hard for Argentina to get any sort of upper hand here. With the “Beast” backing him up and Frans Malherbe having a respectable outing last Saturday for South Africa, Argentina are still likely to be at a distinct disadvantage in the set pieces. Despite Marx struggling to find his targets in the opening stages of the match when it came to lineout time, he still managed to recover the ball for South Africa on numerous occasions. Essentially whatever problems South Africa may have in set pieces they can rely on Marx as the “fixer”, something Argentina simply don’t have up front, despite the inspirational form and ability of Agustin Creevy.

One of the best second row battles of the tournament

Grab a ring side seat for this one. On the Pumas side you have the passion and power of Tomas Lavanini up against the equally ferocious and physical Eben Etzebeth for South Africa. Meanwhile the X-factor champion of the second row, Argentina’s Guido Petti meets the work rate and sheer all round ability of South Africa’s Franco Mostert. Four very contrasting players all of whom are ferocious competitors. Many of Saturday’s battles will be won and lost here for both sides. We are delighted to see RG Snyman get some more Test experience for South Africa, albeit from the bench, as he was one of the standout performers in the Springboks demolition of England in June.

Expect the Pumas back row to really click this weekend

We thought this was one of the strongest aspects of Argentina’s performance last Saturday, and an area where we felt the South Americans looked more cohesive and dangerous than the Springboks.  Marcos Kremer and Pablo Matera clearly made life difficult for South Africa, and on home soil we expect them to be even more problematic. Tomas Lezana was equally impressive off the bench and expect more of the same from him this Saturday. In short, if this unit develops the finesse it needs it will be a key platform for the Pumas as the Championship progresses, particularly against Australia – a side Coach Ledesma knows only too well.

Handre Pollard needs to find his accuracy as the fly half dilemma is still a concern in South Africa

In controlling the game and being a fly half willing to throw himself into the fray, Pollard did not disappoint last Saturday, however missing five out of seven kicks at goal is simply not something the Springboks can afford. The fly half question continues to dog South Africa and although we think that Pollard offers what South Africa needs in terms of game management his accuracy needs to improve. However, with Elton Jantjies not being the answer South Africa is looking for, we didn’t see much from Damian Willemse that gave us much confidence that the Springboks really have any depth here for the World Cup. We hope this weekend will provide some markers.

The Bautista Delguy breakout

We’re going to see it sooner or later in this tournament, and our bet is in one of the Pumas three home games. While South Africa’s backs stole all the headlines last weekend, the world will need to keep this young man on their radar. Despite the loss last Saturday, the winger was often in the thick of the action and always a threat. An exciting player who reminds us of another promising Puma winger who caught the eye a few years ago, Santiago Cordero, but with twice the physicality. Expect him to be snapped up by a French club before year-end, but with the relaxation of the overseas based player rules for the Pumas in time for the World Cup, he’ll be back and the rest of the rugby world has been warned.

Verdict

We are going to gamble here and despite the evidence that says we are probably barking up the wrong tree, we are throwing caution to the wind and giving a nod to the Pumas, albeit by slimmest of margins. It will be a tight, physical and highly emotional match but we just feel that the Pumas are going to kick back into life any day now, and this could be the spark that sets it all in motion. We have a sneaking suspicion that the Pumas could just start peaking for the global showdown in Japan at exactly the right time, just as they did a year before the last World Cup. Agreed it’s a bit of a long shot, but we think it’s worth a roll of the dice. Therefore, Argentina to surprise us all, but probably not themselves and take an edgy encounter by two points!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our previews with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content.

Yes it’s back, and we are genuinely excited about the 2018 edition of the annual dust up between Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa that will keep us glued to our TV screens for six Saturdays between now and October.

The action kicks off on Saturday, as tournament favorites New Zealand travel across the Tasman to take on a continuously improving Australian side. Saturday will also see the first round of the famous Bledisloe Cup competition between these two rivals, and to some fans on both sides of the Tasman this is almost of greater importance than the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan next year. New Zealand will still take some beating and the odds of them lifting the silverware yet again in six weeks time appears rather inevitable. However, as we’ve seen since the Lions tour to New Zealand last year, there are some uncharacteristic vulnerabilities in this All Black squad – the armor still seems pretty impenetrable but there are definitely some chinks in it. Australia meanwhile are clearly improving even if consistency is not one of their strong points. The Wallabies seem to have taken a leaf out of France’s book – brilliant one day a disaster the next. It’s hard to reconcile such contrasting performances as their victory over the All Blacks in Bledisloe 3 last year against their subsequent 53-24 blowout against Scotland last November a few weeks later. However, against the second best team in the world at the moment, Ireland, Australia looked exceptionally competitive this June. Media hype and mind games aside, New Zealand given their own wobbles during the past year, are likely to be feeling more than just a little anxious about Saturday’s proceedings in Sydney.

Meanwhile in Durban, a Pumas side under new management in the shape of Coach Mario Ledesma have their first outing against a Springbok side clearly revelling in the change to their own coaching structure which took place in June. South Africa’s new Coach Rassie Erasmus already has a series win against England under his belt, and in an albeit scrappy game managed to run Wales close in his first outing with the team at the beginning of June. Ledesma who was a superb exponent of Pumas rugby when he wore the jersey, brings enormous international experience to the Coaching role. He clearly had a role in taking a struggling Jaguares side in Super Rugby, and transforming them into playoff contenders this season. While the leap from Super Rugby to Test Rugby is a considerable one with no safety nets, the Pumas are unlikely to be as poor as they were in June under outgoing Coach Daniel Hourcade. It was clear that despite the successes under Hourcade during the last World Cup, his time had come and gone with the players and their performance clearly reflected a team just wanting to end one era and start a new one.

In a departure from our usual style in previewing Tests, instead of merely breaking down the individual head to heads, we’re highlighting five key points which we think will decide each match. So let’s get into it.

Australia vs New Zealand
Saturday, August 18th
Sydney

Whichever way you cut it, this should be a cracker. Last year’s edition saw a first half in which the All Blacks utterly eclipsed a seemingly clueless Wallaby side, who were frantically digging out their dictionaries in the dressing room at the break to determine what the word defence meant. The Wallabies still ended up getting thumped, but their comeback in the second half was commendable and gave us a glimmer of what was to follow. In the return fixture in New Zealand the Wallabies were hardly recognisable from the seeming amateurs of the week before and were desperately unlucky to lose. The Wallabies still struggle at times with discipline, but defensively they are vastly improved and finally have a scrum that can mix it with the world’s best. From 9-15 Australia have a set of backs that immediately bring to mind the likes of Campese, Farr-Jones, Larkham and Lynagh among others. While the current Australian crop still have a long way to go before they approach the greatness of the names mentioned above, there are clearly signs that silky, dangerous Australian backs are once more a part of the Wallaby stable.

New Zealand on the other hand have surely learnt many of the lessons they needed this past season and in the process have developed some truly staggering depth across the park. On any given Saturday, All Black Coach Steve Hansen can put out two world-beating match day squads of 23 players. They may have not gelled together as well as he and his coaching team would liked at times this past season, but the next 13 months are surely going to be a process of simply putting the finishing touches on a robust All Black challenge for the World Cup and one which it would be hard to argue against if you were of the betting persuasion.

If Australia can hold parity at scrum time, will they have the edge when the bench comes into play?

We may be wrong but although New Zealand in our opinion have a better starting front three, we have a hunch that Australia may end up giving New Zealand short shrift here in the final quarter. While everyone is talking about All Black replacement loosehead prop Karl Tu’inukuafe, we are really excited to see Australia’s replacement front three of Tolu Latu, Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou in action. We feel that as a unit they are likely to be that much more cohesive than New Zealand’s replacement trio at a critical juncture in the match, especially if the scores are close.

Will New Zealand shutdown Australia’s Pocock and Hooper at the breakdown?

There is no question that on paper New Zealand’s back row trio should be able to clearly outmuscle Australia, if such contests are kept to close quarters. If however, Hooper is allowed to make himself a nuisance in the loose for the Wallabies and Pocock is back at his poaching best when it comes to one on one turnovers, then New Zealand could struggle in Sydney. The Wallaby duo play such a key role in setting up ball for half backs Genia and Foley, allowing them to unleash a fast and unpredictable set of Australian backs. Despite Pocock and Hooper’s brilliance, the presence and leadership of Kieran Read, and the brute power of Sam Cane and Liam Squire should ensure that the two Wallaby jackals will be kept at bay. In short, plenty of sparks to fly here with Kieran Read only just back from injury making this one of the most fascinating and exciting contests on the park on Saturday.

Beauden Barrett needs a BIG game.

The All Black fly half is still a master at his trade and a supremely gifted player, but there is no denying that he has lacked some of his customary spark and polish at times in the last twelve months. Furthermore, the dips in consistency with his goalkicking have been well documented. To add to the pressure the All Black incumbent is under, a certain Richie Mo’unga is snapping hard at his heels for the New Zealand number 10 shirt. Damian McKenzie on the bench is also a possibility, but we see him as far less of a threat to Barrett than Mo’unga. McKenzie is also equally lethal at fullback and for us, his versatility across the park means that he is less of a threat to Barrett than Mo’unga who is more of a specialist 10. Mo’unga will sit this match out, but is likely to get a starting berth at 10 sooner or later. If Barrett doesn’t deliver on Saturday, expect Mo’unga’s chance to come sooner than many are predicting.

Go wide and go left!

The left wing for both sides should see plenty of action on Saturday. It’s here where there is some exceptional speed and pace from both teams in the shape of Rieko Ioane for the All Blacks and Marika Koroibete for the Wallabies. While we think that Ioane is perhaps the more graceful and fleet of foot of the two, as we saw last year give Koroibete a head of steam and the man is almost impossible to bring down. Furthermore Koroibete has put in some immense try saving tackles and running into him at speed is clearly going to hurt. Ioane on the other hand makes up for lack of bulk with some genuine astuteness in his defensive positioning. Consequently the contrasting styles of these two will be fascinating to watch on Saturday, but if either team goes wide and out to the left then hang on to your seat!

The Beale factor

New Zealand may have a more complete, skilled and ultimately settled team, but there is no denying that there are some remarkable individual talents on this Wallaby team, and perhaps none more so than centre Kurtley Beale. The man is a cheeky magician, plain and simple and his ability to think on his feet is remarkable. Beale’s performances in the last year have for us been the highlight of Australia’s renaissance. He is a consistent game changer who, perhaps epitomizes more than any other Wallaby player, the danger and unpredictability of Australia’s set of backs. Even though he is playing at fullback here instead of centre, this short clip of his remarkable try against Wales last year illustrates the point.

We’re not saying that New Zealand don’t offer comparable quality in their centre offerings on Saturday, especially as we all know what a force Ryan Crotty is. However, it’s the X-factor that Beale brings that makes us think that in front of a raucous Sydney crowd, New Zealand will be working overtime to keep Australia’s mischievous court jester in check.

The verdict

This should be a superb opening to what is likely to be one of the most open Rugby Championships in years. New Zealand are likely to dominate the forward battles, with their half backs ensuring the control and composure needed to get past an adventurous and talented Australian side. We very much doubt we’ll see the first half blowout we saw in this fixture last year, but New Zealand should still ultimately come out on top in a closely fought contest. Either way definitely a game you don’t want to miss. Australia will provide New Zealand with some nasty surprises at times through their backs and the Hooper/Pocock combination, but ultimately New Zealand will still have the overall class and pedigree to get the job done by six points!

South Africa vs Argentina
Saturday, August 18th
Durban

The last time these two sides met in Durban it did not go well for the Springboks by any stretch of the imagination. The Pumas ran rings around them at times, as they set the tone for the type of performances they were set to produce two months later in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. However, much like the Wallabies the Pumas have not been blessed with consistency despite their meteoric rise through the global rankings in the last ten years. To add insult to injury, the last two years have seen an alarming drop in the ability of the Pumas to get results. They may produce a spectacular 50-60 minutes of rugby, but then ultimately fade away. Perhaps more worrying is that they have clearly run out of puff by the time they get to their final two games of the Championship, which are both home fixtures, and as a result tend to exit the competition with a whimper, despite home ground advantage. Consequently, the new dawn that starts with Coach Mario Ledesma this Saturday is being eagerly anticipated by Pumas supporters and neutral fans around the world. When the Pumas play well they are a joy to watch and their passion and skill sets at times are unique. Ally this to a consistently powerful and fast forward presence and they are always a team to be feared.

The Springboks are also starting life anew under Coach Rassie Erasmus after the turbulent reign of Alastair Coetzee since the last World Cup. With a new Coach and a new Captain, Siya Kolisi who is also the first ever black player to hold the responsibility, much is being expected of the Springboks as they look to restore some much-needed pride to a battered jersey. They got off to a great start in June, with a 2-1 Series win over England and in the process highlighted a raft of new and exciting talent along with the resurgence of some valued veterans. In short, South Africa are back and mean business. There are still many questions that remain from the Coetzee era, and Erasmus still has a very long to do list, but there was no doubt that the Springboks on display in June showcased a potentially exciting future that embraced South Africa’s traditional strengths while adapting them to the pace of the modern game.

Malcom Marx – Best Hooker in the World?

In our humble opinion the simple answer to that question is yes. Possessing a phenomenal work rate that provides constant inspiration to his fellow team mates, Marx is far more than just a hooker. Playmaker, poacher, utility back – the list goes on. Feared by many opponents but respected by all – Marx is the complete rugby player. He goes up against a player equal in stature in the shape of Argentine Hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy, but expect to see Marx still going flat-out at the eighty minute mark while Creevy is likely to be on the bench by 60. If Marx gets this team going on Saturday and for the rest of the Championship, then South Africa will be an almost impossible team to beat at home and a serious challenge on the road.

South Africa may dominate the lineouts, but beware the Pumas duo in space!

To be honest we are scratching our heads slightly at the omission of Bulls lock RG Snyman from the Springbok starting lineup for this match. South African supporters will be delighted to see the return of Eben Etzebeth from injury, and along with Pieter-Steph du Toit, the Springboks should dominate the lineouts. However, the Pumas duo of Mattias Alemanno and Guido Petti, in particular, are going to provide the South Africans with plenty of problems in the event of any spilled ball. Petti’s strength and speed were one of the talking points of the Jaguares’ Super Rugby exploits and Alemanno is no slacker either. We thought that in the recent England series with South Africa RG Snyman had the pace and power similar to the likes of Petti, and are thus rather surprised at his omission.

The most evenly matched contest on the park – the Back Row!

The contest between these six gentlemen on Saturday, will be worth the price of admission or your internet/cable subscription alone. For South Africa you have the former Captain Warren Whiteley alongside the new Captain Siya Kolisi, backed up by veteran Francois Louw. While Kolisi may not have had the best season at Super Rugby level, his performance in the June Tests against England was immense and his ability to provide leadership when his team found themselves in a corner was noteworthy. However, for us it’s the Pumas offering backed up by a solid bench that is the more daunting of the two back rows. In Marcos Kremer we think Argentina have one of the most promising newcomers in International Rugby and Pablo Matera and Javier Ortega Desio are both exceptional and proven commodities. It’s South Africa’s bench where we feel they have more to prove in this part of the park than Argentina. Tomas Lezana has been outstanding for Argentina and the Jaguares over the last year, and South Africa’s Marco van Staden will be put to the test on debut in no uncertain terms by this powerhouse Pumas quartet.

The Springbok fly half question

Like most we breathed a sigh of relief to see Handre Pollard’s name on the starting sheet at number 10. Make no mistake we think that his rival Elton Jantjies is a very fine club/province player. However, as evidenced in the recent Super Rugby final and in the final June Test against England – a Test level fly half Jantjies is not. Under pressure he resorts to kicking away perfectly good possession for no visible gain. Furthermore we’ve noticed over the years that in South African rugby when the fly half starts aimlessly kicking away ball then the rest of the team seems to think it’s OK to do so as well. Pollard seems a much more precise player as well as being highly courageous with ball in hand. His composure seems to be much more solid under pressure as well. However, given the fact that he seems the clear and obvious choice, South Africa find themselves with 13 months to go, having little or no depth in such a key position. They’ll be utilising newcomer and Stormers fly half Damian Willemse from the bench, but although the talented youngster is getting a lot of praise, the Stormers rather dismal Super Rugby campaign isn’t exactly imbuing us with a lot of confidence. South Africa need to find answers here and quickly.

South Africa’s defense at the back will be sorely tested

Three names to watch for South Africa – Makazole Mapimpi, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Lukhanyo Am. The two wingers and a centre have ridiculous amounts of speed and ball handling skills, but defensively the jury is still out and this is an area where they will be fully tested on Saturday. For us Pumas winger Bautista Delguy is one of the most dangerous new attacking threats in Test rugby, and was one of the few positive aspects of Argentina’s dismal June series against Wales and Scotland. Hungry and exceptionally fit Delguy will put Dyantyi under all kinds of pressure on Saturday, while Ramiro Moyano will do the same to Mapimpi. Throw into the mix Pumas fullback Emiliano Boffelli who was one of the players of the year in 2017 and the Springboks are going to have to be very sharp at the back in Durban. They can take comfort from the fact that veteran Willie le Roux, who has rediscovered the form that made him such an exceptional player in the past for the Springboks, will be the last line of defence. Le Roux is playing some very smart rugby and got the Springboks out of jail on numerous occasions against England, as well as providing some scintillating counterattacks of his own. While Mapimpi, Dyantyi and Am can score tries at will, it will mean very little if they provide a porous defence in return for their attacking prowess and opportunism.

Verdict

Argentina have the squad and Coach to pull off an upset in Durban, just as they did three years ago almost to the day. However, we think that as new Coach Ledesma’s first outing with Argentina it is unlikely, added to the fact that the Pumas still have to step up massively from the shambolic performances they put in during the Tests against Wales and Scotland in June. They will be exceptionally competitive make no mistake, and an exciting Test match should be in prospect with plenty of physicality and enterprise from both sides. However, it is South Africa coming off the back of a series win against England who are likely to be the more settled and composed side, especially on home soil. Therefore a tight encounter initially but South Africa to pull away by eight points at the final whistle!

Endnote

As we mentioned in our plug for them on our TV/Internet Listings page, our favorite source of rugby analysis the 1014 and Steve and Gareth are back on YouTube. Their breakdowns and fascinating analysis and in-depth (but never dry) use of statistics provides the best insight into International Rugby currently out there. We’ll be ending all our previews with a link to their YouTube content, so get over there and make sure you give them a big thumbs up so we can continue enjoying their remarkable content.

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but we’ll wrap up this series with our sixth and final instalment which takes a look at how Ireland fared.

Ireland – 9/10

Whichever way you cut it, it has been a truly remarkable year for Irish rugby. Ireland got their season off to a flying start with a clean sweep of the November Internationals, followed up by a Grand Slam in the Six Nations and a season finale of a Series win in Australia. To back up the exploits of the Men in Green, Irish teams dominated European club competitions, winning both the European Champions Cup and the PRO 14. The structure in place in Ireland is clearly paying dividends, as Ireland reflect on a year that has them sitting comfortably in second place on World Rugby’s rankings table. This time last year the England/All Blacks encounter this November was being hailed as THE game of 2018, but the Ireland/New Zealand fixture a week later is now being billed as the most eagerly anticipated Test of the year.

Ireland came roaring out of the blocks in their season opener last November against South Africa. While many had written off South Africa, it was worth noting that in their last match prior to meeting Ireland, they had lost to the All Blacks by a mere point in a thrilling encounter in Cape Town. However, Ireland literally blew them off the park in a four try romp and recorded their greatest ever winning margin against the Springboks 38-3. Next up Ireland put out a developmental squad against Fiji. While they acquitted themselves well, they almost came unstuck after a purple patch of concentration at the mid-point of the match saw Fiji run in two tries. Nevertheless, it was a valuable lesson for Coach Joe Schmidt’s less experienced charges in how to salvage a win under intense pressure from a very competitive Fijian side. Their final match of November, also showed a worrying trend of losing concentration, as they took on a struggling Argentinian outfit. Although by the hour mark, Ireland were comfortably in charge and in a dominant position on the scoreboard, they appeared to take their foot off the gas and could have paid dearly for it as Argentina scored two tries in the final minutes. Even though Ireland never looked like they were going to lose the match, they could ill afford such lapses in intensity against teams like New Zealand or in the upcoming Six Nations.

On that note, Ireland’s start to the Six Nations was a tense affair which almost saw the Men in Green record their first loss of the season. Ireland traditionally struggle to record a win in Paris and this year’s Six Nations opener was no exception. As the game headed into injury time, France were ahead by a point. However, in a remarkable display of composure and discipline, Ireland kept the ball for an extraordinary 41 phases, ultimately passing the ball to fly half extraordinaire Johnny Sexton for the drop goal to seal the win for Ireland 15-13. Once again in the second half Irish concentration had dipped allowing a try from French winger Teddy Thomas which appeared to have sealed the deal in France’s favor, especially as the French defence seemed impervious to repeated Irish assaults. It was a nail biting finish, but that run of possession by Ireland was a foretaste of how they would come to place a stranglehold on matches when they most needed it.

Ireland then returned to Dublin for three home games, starting with Italy. Italy put up a brave fight but were utterly eclipsed by Ireland who comfortably won the match 56-19. Next up it was a tight and intensely physical contest with Wales, but as the match wore on Ireland were clearly the side in charge. Furthermore the match highlighted the ability of winger Jacob Stockdale to seemingly score tries at will, as the youngster ran in two fine tries which would ultimately set him on the path to be the tournament’s top try scorer. Ireland’s last match at home was against a Scottish side buoyed by two superb wins against France and England. However, Ireland by now had really hit their stride in the tournament and completely shut down Scotland’s renowned attacking prowess with Stockdale continuing to be a try seeking missile. With a match in hand, their 28-8 defeat of the Scots meant Ireland had the Six Nations title in the bag. All that remained was the scintillating prospect of taking a Grand Slam at England’s expense at Twickenham.

Ireland’s Grand Slam decider at Twickenham was a fitting end to a remarkable Irish performance in the Six Nations. With the usually reliable Owen Farrell seeming unable to hit a barn door for England in the kicking department, Ireland controlled a thrilling match and put in a complete team performance which gave England very little opportunity. The Irish defence was outstanding, while once again their strike runners continued to cause havoc for their opponents. Ireland looked focused and disciplined for the full eighty minutes, and made an increasingly frustrated English side pay dearly for their mistakes. Ireland were starting to look unstoppable, with extraordinary depth across the park, and the only question that remained was could they take this remarkable form on the road and record a series win on a tough three Test end of year tour to Australia?

In a nail biting opening Test in Brisbane, Australia looked the fitter and hungrier side. Ireland just couldn’t unlock the Australian defence and all their strike threats out wide, who had proved so devastating during the Six Nations, seemed to struggle to find work in the series opener. In the end, Australia emerged comfortable winners at 18-9. Many had predicted that as good as Ireland were, this tour would be the bridge too far that burst the bubble of euphoria surrounding Irish rugby. However, the second Test proved the critics wrong as Ireland got themselves right back into the series. It was a Test for the ages, as both sides went hammer and tongs at each other and the match was on a knife edge for long periods of a thrilling eighty minutes. However, it would be Ireland who would ultimately get the edge on composure and put in a classy finish to see them emerge the winners at 26-21, setting up an epic series decider in Sydney the following weekend.

Ireland’s final game of a remarkable year showed just how important Irish fly half Johnny Sexton is to this Irish side. Just as he set up Ireland’s road to the Grand Slam at the death in the Six Nations opener against France, his goal kicking abilities and composure under pressure would ultimately be enough to nudge Ireland ahead of an exceptionally spirited Australian challenge. In a game that had fans around the world, regardless of who they supported on the edge of their seats, Ireland would squeak the win and the series 20-16. In this final hurrah of the season, they learnt a great deal about their own depth as well as the class and quality of their veterans against an exceptionally worthy and difficult opponent who had pushed them to the limits in all three Tests. To do this a long way from home and at the end of a long hard season, made the victory and Ireland’s achievements this season that much sweeter.

As we head into the upcoming season, there are a myriad of questions surrounding Ireland. Have they peaked too early? Will they ultimately bow out of next year’s World Cup with a whimper as history has dictated up till now? Do they finally have the depth to cope with the inevitable injuries and make them a real contender with the All Blacks for World Cup glory? The list goes on.

However, we think that this time Ireland does have the players and experience to go the distance, not only this season but also at the World Cup. We doubt they have peaked too early and feel that many of the younger players who stood out this year are only just getting into their stride. As for the depth issue, with the possible exception of back up for scrum half extraordinaire Conor Murray, Ireland appear to be exceptionally well stocked. There is the nagging worry that without Murray and Sexton on the field Ireland are only half the team they could be, but with Carberry likely to get much more exposure this year as Sexton’s understudy then at least some of that concern is being put to rest. Even without Sexton and Murray, Ireland has a forward pack that is the envy of the world, and a set of backs that can mix it with the world’s best in defence and on attack. In short, Ireland’s roll call for this coming season would be the stuff of fantasy for a majority of top Test team selectors. Ireland are in fantastic shape and provided they can keep building on the momentum of this past season, it is going to take a very special team to knock them off their perch. Coach Joe Schmidt’s down to earth focus is likely to keep the players in check mentally and thus prevent them from falling prey to the hype surrounding the team. As a result we very much doubt complacency is likely to be an issue with this rather extraordinary and committed team.

Match of the year – England vs Ireland – Twickenham – March 17th – England 15/Ireland 24

We were rather spoilt for choice in making this selection, as Ireland put in so many memorable performances this season. However, securing a Grand Slam at Fortress Twickenham is always a rather special achievement and one to be savored. Ireland looked the part from start to finish in a tough encounter as they sought to make history. It’s coping so well with this kind of pressure, especially away from home, that will hopefully make them a genuine contender next year in Japan.

Player of the year – Tadgh Furlong

Once again, an almost impossible choice here as there were so many brilliant individual performances that contributed to the way Ireland played this year. While Johnny Sexton may have been the glue that held this remarkable team together this year, allowing them to shine as individuals and as a unit, we just felt we had to give Furlong the honor this season. The Tighthead Prop is in our opinion the best in the world at the moment at his trade, and Furlong seemed to be in the thick of everything extraordinary that Ireland did this year. He seems to embody all the qualities that have become so impressive about this Irish squad, power, intensity, committment and a work rate that appears impervious to fatigue. Furlong had a massive year for Ireland and was one of our talking points after every Irish performance. Like many of Ireland’s new generation of players he seems to be just getting into his stride and we look forward to watching the chaos he is likely to cause opposition teams this coming season.

Player to watch in 2019 – James Ryan

Once again another tough call here with so many brilliant individual performances. However, it seems remarkable that this was only the 22 year-old lock’s first full season in the green jersey – such was the impact he had. A truly impressive talent who has a future ahead of him that is surely likely to equal that of Irish greats like the legendary Paul O’Connell. Expect him to be even better this year after the experience he has gained this past season.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Ireland’s best match of the year in our opinion. Their Grand Slam decider against England at Twickenham was a special victory, as it was only their third in the tournament’s history, and to secure it away from home was a genuine achievement. In a high pressure match with everything to play for, Ireland put in a complete performance that personified the very high levels of composure, discipline and execution that have now become trademarks of this team. Ireland are not second in the world by a judicious roll of fortune’s dice and last year’s fixture list.  They have earned every last inch of it, and look set to continue to be the benchmark Northern Hemisphere team in 2019. They will need to push themselves even harder though and continue to raise the bar, as England and Wales will likely be snapping hard at their heels, with the dark horses of France and Scotland never very far away.

That concludes our look at the Northern Season – we’ll be doing the same for the Southern Hemisphere and Canada, USA, Fiji and Georgia at the end of the year. But for now bring on the Rugby Championship!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 5 where we take a look at how Wales fared.

Wales – 7/10

It’s been a good year for Wales make no mistake, and with them sitting at third place in the World Rankings – why have we only given them a 7/10 you may ask? Yes it has been an outstanding season for Wales, but their place on the world rankings table is likely to change fairly quickly once the Rugby Championship gets underway next weekend, as Australia and South Africa are likely to climb quickly on the global pecking order. There have been some outstanding performances by Wales this season, but look at the maths and then you may understand how we have had to temper Wales place on the world rankings with a dose of reality. Yes they only lost four Tests this past season, but of the eight they won, four of those matches were by less than seven points. The win against Georgia, at the beginning of the season was also far from convincing. Lastly their summer tour was against two sides deep in the process of transition – not that that takes away from three excellent Welsh wins, made more impressive by the fact that they were delivered by what was essentially a developmental squad. In short, it has been a year in which Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they have at their disposal. While the results may not have been as convincing at times as some may have liked, Wales have used this season to lay some excellent ground work for the World Cup in Japan next year. On that basis we feel that Wales have had a very good year and should feel exceptionally confident going into 2019.

Wales got their season off to a blistering start in the November Internationals against Australia. While they may have lost the game, they played some outstanding attacking rugby but at times they looked fragile defensively. It was a fast and very physical game, with the Welsh forward pack, particularly the loose forwards Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi putting in a huge shift. However, the pace at which Wales played meant that at times they were left wrongfooted in defence. Australia were clinical at spotting the gaps and making Wales pay for them. Furthermore, in the exuberance Wales fluffed a few key chances, while their goalkicking also left them bereft of some key points. Still it was an impressive display that hinted at some great performances to come from Wales as the season unfolded.

Although they won their next match against Georgia, much of the optimism surrounding their performance against Australia quickly evaporated. It was a scrappy and at times cynical effort from Wales, and they were lucky to win a match that was from a spectator point of view instantly forgettable. Georgia matched them physically and pushed them to the limit and were unlucky to lose. They then went on to face New Zealand, and despite having the lion’s share of possession and territory they were able to do a lot less with it than the All Blacks. New Zealand were simply better at turning what little opportunity they had into points on the board. Although Wales played some brilliant rugby in the second half and scored some outstanding tries, their finishing still left much to be desired. As a result, despite a solid effort they still found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard at the final whistle by 15 points.

Wales would finish the November Test window by putting on another superb display of high-speed attacking rugby in the first half against South Africa. However, alarm bells would start ringing again as they failed to maintain the momentum, allowing the Springboks right back into the match towards the end of the first half and ultimately for the rest of the match. Welsh fans breathed a sigh of relief as Leigh Halfpenny stroked a penalty over the posts with ten minutes to go, and put Wales back into a two point lead which they would maintain till the final whistle. Once again an impressive start was let down by a less than convincing finish despite the win.

Wales started their Six Nations campaign against Scotland by laying down a marker that they would be a force to be reckoned with. Once again they got off to a remarkably fast start which clearly unhinged a Scottish side renown for playing an equally quick brand of rugby. Wales ran out resounding winners in what was their best all round performance of the year, and one which they were able to maintain for the full eighty minutes. Wales then travelled to Twickenham where they took on England in a match they were desperately unlucky to lose, made worse by not being awarded a try which could have clearly swung the match in their favor. England were distinctly average for much of the match, though once again Wales failed to capitalise on some golden opportunities that went begging. Perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of the Welsh performance was a bizarre obsession with a kicking game in the opening stages of the game that was clearly not working for them. The minute they stopped kicking the ball away, England started to look vulnerable. How different the result might have been had they stuck with this approach from the outset.

Wales then made the journey to Dublin to take on an Irish side that was building some impressive momentum that would take them all the way to a Grand Slam. What we were privileged to witness was one of the best games of the tournament as both sides went at each other hammer and tongs. Fast and physical for the full eighty minutes, Wales were ultimately unable to contain Ireland who managed to exert increasing control over the match as it wore on. Wales got themselves back into the match with the final quarter to go, but once again Ireland were able to put a stranglehold on proceedings despite sustained Welsh pressure and it was Ireland who stole the show at the end with a brilliant intercept try.

Wales returned home, to thump Italy and then in a scrappy and difficult encounter, struggled to get past a resilient France, winning the match by one point. The French dominated possession in the second half, but a resolute Welsh defence held firm. Luckily for Wales, France didn’t bring their kicking boots with them and as a result Wales would squeak the match by the slimmest of margins.

Wales would end their season taking a developmental squad full of new caps on a three Test tour of the Americas. They got proceedings underway in an exhibition match in Washington, DC against South Africa. It was South Africa’s first game under new Coach Rassie Erasmus, ahead of a three Test series at home to England. Both sides were highly experimental but Wales can feel well pleased with the way Coach Warren Gatland’s new charges stood up to the challenge. It was a dire match at first, but from the 20 minute mark, the game picked up its tempo and Wales got into their high-speed attack mode scoring two quick tries. However, as we saw all year, at times they struggle to keep that momentum for the full eighty minutes. South Africa came storming back into the match in the second half and the contest went to the wire, with Wales making a superb charge down on a South African kick deep in the Springbok 22 and scoring a try to seal the match in their favor 24-22.

Wales then headed to Argentina for a two Test series and Gatland’s young charges excelled themselves. Admittedly Argentina were poor and lacked focus, but there is no denying that Wales completely outplayed the South Americans in a master class display from an impressive crop of less experienced Welsh players. Wales boarded the plane for the long flight home knowing that they head into the coming season and preparations for Japan with some serious depth. Depth that is likely to get better with increased exposure in the year ahead.

Our only concern with Wales is consistency, particularly in terms of lasting a full eighty minutes. They are playing a vastly expanded game compared to years gone by and it seems to suit them, even if defensively they have been found wanting at times. Fast and powerful with some outstanding loose forwards, Wales look exceptionally dangerous providing they can finish off the opportunities they are creating. In Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler, Wales have one of the best and most dangerous back row partnerships in International Rugby right now. Fix the consistency, improve the defence and cut down on the errors and Wales are more than capable of getting to the final four in Japan next year. Whatever happens they are an exciting side and we look forward to watching them build on the momentum of a season which reflects a job well done by the players and coaching staff.

Match of the year – Wales vs Scotland – Cardiff – February 3rd – Wales 34/Scotland 7

Wales completely outplayed a highly vaunted Scottish side in their Six Nations opener. Unfortunately they were unable to maintain this level of intensity and efficiency for the remainder of the tournament, but it showcased the skill set that Wales now have, especially with this looser and more open style of game they seem to have adopted. When they get it right the rest of the world will be more than just a little anxious about facing them.

Player of the year – Josh Navidi

Tough call here, as Navidi’s back row partner Aaron Shingler also stood out all season. However, it was Navidi’s powerful runs throughout the year that really caught our eye starting with Wales’ opening Test against Australia. Perhaps more than any other player Navidi epitomised the speed and power which this new look Welsh side seem to now thrive on. It was Navidi’s work rate in the loose and his explosive breaks that set up so many of Wales’ attacks through their backs this season.

Player to watch in 2019 – James Davies

While not exactly a youngster, at the age of 27, the flanker really stood out on Wales’ summer tour of the Americas, proving that Wales have some genuine depth in the back row. Expect to see more of the energetic blindside causing havoc in the midfield in 2019.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Wales’ best match of the year in our opinion. Their Six Nations opener against Scotland laid down a real marker of Welsh intent, as well as a showing a more polished and expansive style of play perfected from the November Internationals. Although they may have struggled to maintain it throughout the tournament, they still managed to finish second on the table, and on tour in the Americas in June it was very much on display with a crop of new talent. If Wales can make this their modus operandi throughout 2019, they will be a force to be reckoned with and well prepared for the global showdown in Japan.

Up next – we conclude the series with Ireland!