Wallabies have another hard lesson at the All Blacks Finishing School

Bledisloe Cup 3

Australia vs New Zealand
Final Score – NZ 29/Aus 28

One thing this match was not was a dead rubber match. Despite the media circus surrounding the Wallaby camp, Australia came into this game guns blazing.  For three quarters of the game they outplayed a competitive but slightly under par All Black side.  Nevertheless as I have stressed in this blog for the last two months, modern day International Test Rugby is actually a game of 81 minutes.  The team that can play to the hooter and then still have something in the tank for the last dying seconds of injury time will win matches at this level.  As we have seen since last year, whatever their critics may say about their performance on any given day, the All Blacks have consistently proved that they are the master of this.  If they are within a converted try of winning a match with 90 seconds to go before full time, then if you are putting money on it, you could confidently wager they’ll win the match.

Australia failed to recognise this and New Zealand reaped the rewards. At one point, with minutes left on the clock the ball went to ground in All Black possession and there was little support for the men in black.  I was amazed to see Australia almost standing back and not contest a ball there for the taking.  Their attitude seemed to say “the job’s done lads”.  How wrong they were!  New Zealand managed to hang on to the ball, Malakai Fekitoa graced us with another Jonah Lomu impression and the rest was history.  The Wallabies learnt another painful lesson at the All Blacks finishing school.

Despite Australia for all intents and purposes throwing a game they should have won, Wallaby fans can take heart in a greatly improved Australian performance. Granted the All Blacks did not play with the intensity in this match that we have seen them capable of –  but they provided that intensity when it was most needed.  Nevertheless, for much of the game Australia were the dominant side.  Their forward pack were impressive and the backs were allowed to shine.  As argumentative and often disrespectful of the referee as he is at times, Michael Hooper’s work rate was once again phenomenal giving Richie McCaw more than a run for his money.  On the wing, it was obvious to see why Adam Ashley-Cooper has played a 100 tests for his country and it was good to see his efforts rewarded with an impressive try.  Israel Folau played a mostly solid defensive game and was fantastic to watch in full flight with ball in hand.  Tevita Kuridrani was once again superlative on attack and proved to be a constant dilemma for New Zealand’s defences.  I was also impressed with the foraging skills of Scott Fardy who I personally think is one of Australia’s most underrated players and I hope to see him getting consistent game time in November in preparation for next year’s World Cup.

In short we saw an Australia team chock full of talent but just lacking that final killer blow to finish off the big international teams. However, the overall level of skill displayed by Australia was heartening to watch.  If they can find those finishing skills then this is a team more than capable of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy next year.  So as the All Black juggernaut arrives in Europe next month, the Northern Hemisphere is painfully aware it will be a long month as Australia, South Africa and the dramatically improved Argentina also all come knocking on their doors determined to take no prisoners and answer the question of which Hemisphere has the most dominant brand of rugby.

European Champions Cup – The Old Heineken Cup gets a new lease of life!

European Champions Cup

Although the purpose of The Lineout is to focus on International Test Rugby, there are two annual competitions that set the tone for the composition and selection of national squads for International Test Rugby. In the Southern Hemisphere it is Super Rugby, comprising 15 of the best club sides from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.  In the Northern Hemisphere it is the European Champions Cup, which used to be called the Heineken Cup, and comprises the best club teams from England, France, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.

The European Champions Cup gets underway this weekend and will run over six weekends of pool games and then a series of knockout stages from now until May. As much as I would like to, as I am a one man band at the moment, I cannot watch ten games of rugby each weekend the Champions Cup is being played.   Instead, each weekend I will focus on the matches played by the top three clubs in a particular country.  So this weekend we will focus on three English Clubs – Northampton, Saracens and Bath to try and get an idea of how these teams performance will reflect England`s selection for the Autumn Internationals in November as well as the Six Nations in February/March.  Next weekend we will look at the three top French clubs and ultimately work our way through to Italy by the end of the Championship.  Obviously as Wales only has two teams in the Champions Cup and Scotland and Italy one each, then coverage of those weekends will not be as comprehensive as when we cover England, France and Ireland who all have at least three teams competing.  Once the tournament gets to the knockout stages in April and May I will cover all these games leading up to the final in May.

So this weekend, the fixtures I will be covering in this tournament are:

Saracens vs Clermont Auvergne

Glasgow vs Bath

Racing Metro 92 vs Northampton

Obviously as these English clubs are playing French and Scottish teams these fixtures will also provide us with an initial insight into how preparations for France and Scotland`s Autumn International Tests are shaping up and players we can watch for. In addition, for our Canadian audience many of these teams have a smattering of Canadian players who are gaining valuable big match experience at the top tier of European rugby and it will be interesting to see how they perform and what such experience may ultimately lend to Canada`s preparations for next year`s World Cup.

Australia and New Zealand – unfinished business!

Bledisloe Cup 3
Australia vs New Zealand – Brisbane
Saturday, October 18

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is potentially a dead rubber match. The Rugby Championship is well and truly dusted with New Zealand deserved champions.  Australia has emerged from the whole process in tatters surrounded by various off field media circuses.

Any match at this level between two top class international sides with a year to go before the World Cup is still a bonus for the teams involved, and ahead of a tough month in Europe for both New Zealand and Australia, this match will be useful preparation. The All Blacks will endeavour to get the second win over the Wallabies that they were unable to do in the opening match of the Rugby Championship in Sydney in August and thus erase the temporary blip of that match’s draw which denied them the Bledisloe Cup.  The Wallabies on the other hand have everything to prove and everything to lose at the same time.  The Australian public is seriously disenchanted with the team and its management and see the inevitable downward slide of the Wallabies first seen under Robbie Deans’ tenure and which Ewen McKenzie was supposed to fix.  The off field media shenanigans are more reality TV than rugby and are seriously detracting from the business at hand – being one of the best international teams in world rugby.

Therefore one of two things will happen in Brisbane. The game will be poorly attended and a discordant and fractious Wallaby side will be made whipping boys by the All Blacks who no doubt are licking their lips at the potential score line.  The second scenario is that a wounded Wallaby is a dangerous animal and the Australian public will rally to their team’s defence in these dark times, and as a result caution will be thrown to the wind as a team with everything to prove throws themselves into this fixture with an almost religious fanaticism that will not tolerate or concede defeat.

In my humble opinion, I can’t help feeling the former scenario may take precedence unless for some bizarre reason the All Blacks decide to take their foot off the gas for this match and try and avoid unnecessary injury ahead of their European safari in November. However under Steve Hansen’s tenure I very much doubt that New Zealand will treat this as a soft game.  While not having the same stature of rivalry as Springbok/All Black clashes, there is still an important part of All Black psychology that dictates every contest with the Wallabies should emerge in a win for New Zealand.  The All Blacks regard themselves as THE Representative of South Pacific Rugby and will brook no contenders.  Furthermore the sight of the All Blacks lifting yet another piece of silverware is something their fans will demand.

Therefore expect a game which will be played at full intensity by both sides irrespective of the implications of the game in world standings. A win for Australia will boost their confidence as they board the plane to Europe and silence their critics and tone down the media circus surrounding the side. This will allow them to once more focus on the job at hand – preparation for next year’s World Cup and a punishing tour of Europe next month.  For New Zealand anything less than an outright and convincing win is unacceptable and this game will be seen as a further example of the All Blacks’ world dominance.  Of the two sides, I fully expect New Zealand to walk away comfortably with the spoils as much as I would like to see Australia regain the potential we know they are capable of.  Either way this won’t be a dead rubber match and will definitely be worth watching.

Rugby Championship 2014 – Round 6 – Give the people what they want – at last!

Rugby Championship 2014

South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – SA 27/NZ 25

As expected this match proved to be the classic end of tournament showdown between the two best sides in the world that everyone predicted.  No quarter given and none taken as this game went down to the wire for the full 80 minutes and gave the public a breathtaking spectacle of rugby at the highest level.

South Africa came into this game knowing that they had to build on the momentum they achieved last weekend in Cape Town against the Wallabies.  However, the all-conquering All Blacks would be a much harder nut to crack.  South Africa played well last weekend, but they now had to dig deep and find another level if they were to stand any chance.  Clearly the planning in the week leading up to the match seemed to be that unlike against Australia, South Africa would have to establish an early dominant lead forcing the All Blacks to play catch up rugby and hope that if the All Blacks would have to claw a victory at the last minute doing so in the high altitude conditions of Johannesburg would be a bridge too far.  I doubt at sea level the Springboks would have taken this gamble.  Look at Ireland’s dominance by three tries in their match last year in Dublin against New Zealand, only to have New Zealand snatch victory at the last minute.  Nevertheless the altitude in Johannesburg is always going to be a factor.  The Springboks took a calculated risk, and despite a 15 minute lapse of concentration in the second half that almost cost them the game, managed to just hang on and courtesy of Pat Lambie’s remarkable boot snatch the victory that was theirs for the taking.

Firstly I think that I owe two gentlemen in the Springbok camp an apology.  Francois Hougaard and Handre Pollard, especially Handre Pollard – Sir you were utterly outstanding!  Even Heineke Meyer could be in for an apology as he seems well on the way to coming up with the complete Springbok squad and dare I say it – a game plan that works.  Sort out some of those lapses in concentration, physical endurance and conditioning, keep hanging on to the ball and it is all starting to look really good for Mr. Meyer and his charges.  The lesson for South Africa from this narrow but courageous win is here is something to build a base from that works but we are still a ways from the finished product and the full equal of the world’s best team – New Zealand.  Prepare for November’s Tests with that frame of mind and a European autumn could be a very encouraging period for the Springboks as they ready themselves for the global showdown in England next year at the World Cup.

South Africa came storming out of the blocks from the first minute in this match, and showed clearly their intent.  A few initial errors in handling were quickly ironed out and Francois Hougaard went on to score a try that started deep in South Africa’s 22 that showed the world that South Africa know how to run the ball and keep possession and have a backline that deserves respect.  Once again it was that man Cornal Hendricks who showed us some blistering pace and dazzling footwork before making a brilliant offload to the equally impressive Jan Serfontein who in turn found Hougaard exactly where he needed him to be to power past a flat footed All Black defense.  As I say Hendricks for me has been one of the revelations of the tournament and I am really looking forward to watching him in Europe in November – definitely one of the Autumn’s danger men from the Southern Hemisphere.

The next to show off his armory of exceptional skills was Handre Pollard as he effortlessly appeared at Byran Habana’s side as the winger made a superb break.  Pollard then demonstrated that slalom skiing skills now have a place in international rugby as he magically weaved his way around three All Black defenders to cross the white line.  By now the sound at Ellis Park could probably be heard on the moon as the Springbok faithful were having the party they had been promised for so long.

However, New Zealand are never left speechless for too long and soon pounced back with Savea and Fekitoa showing a terrific interlinking of the two wings as the latter stormed his way across the Springbok line after a superb chip and gather and resulting offload from Savea.  Fekitoa is rapidly proving to be a pocket Jonah Lomu as once off and running he is almost impossible to bring down leaving scores of flailing defenders on the touchlines clutching at thin air.

South Africa were to comprehensively seal the first half in their favor as Handre Pollard continued to play the game of his life so early in his young career as the fly half evaded the clutches of the legendary Richie McCaw after seeing a glimmer of space and securing South Africa’s third try.

The facial expressions on players at half time said it all, the Boks looked as though they were on the verge of something big but Meyer managed to maintain a remarkable sense of composure in the dressing room and as mentioned above for once almost looked calm.  I am sure that this had a beneficial effect on his charges as for the next 40 minutes they maintained their composure for the most part and continued to deny New Zealand possession while at the same time being careful not to make careless and reckless decisions.  The goal here was to win and not attempt to make history and thrash the All Blacks.

South Africa started the second half with a flourish and quick thinking by Conrad Smith denied Jean de Villiers an almost certain try by mere fingertips.  This piece of brinkmanship heroics seemed to galvanize the All Blacks into action and for the next fifteen minutes they sought to expose every weakness in an increasingly tired looking Springbok side.  The results then came quickly as Ben Smith split the Springbok defense and the score line gap started to rapidly shrink as Beauden Barrett made sure the GPS in his kicking boot was operating correctly.  With less than ten minutes to go, Dan Coles crashed over the Springbok white line and it was 25-24 for the All Blacks.  The ground became eerily quiet as Springbok supporters had visions of Ireland’s similar loss to the All Blacks last year flashing before their eyes.  Pat Lambie tried an ambitious drop goal but was just wide of the posts.

An exhausting, intense physical encounter finally took its toll on New Zealand in the dying minutes of the game.  Liam Messam, whether willfully or accidentally, made a dubious tackle on Schalk Burger that on the video screen appeared to show Messam clearly in the wrong.  The crowd went quiet as the young Pat Lambie with the weight of the nation on his shoulders stepped up to take an almost impossible kick from 55 metres to seal the game for the Springboks.  The expression on Lambie’s face summed up the Nation’s feeling – JOB DONE!  There is no doubt that Lambie will regard that kick as one of the highlights of his career, and that he could perform as well as he did under that kind of almost superhuman pressure is a true testimony to this young player’s talent.

In short an inspirational performance from a highly charged Springbok side, but one that must serve as the motivation to improve.  As mentioned above, South Africa looked exhausted at times in the second half, in many ways much more so than the All Blacks who should have suffered more at high altitude.  If South Africa want to continuously beat New Zealand then they need to sort out their match fitness especially away from home as they set out on an intensive travel schedule in November.  However, what we witnessed this weekend should give Springbok fans around the world great heart with a year to go before the World Cup.

Argentina vs Australia
Final Score – Arg 21/Aus 17

The result we have all been predicting for the Pumas for so long finally materialised in Mendoza this Saturday.  Yes there was controversy as a result of the shameful laser incident during Bernard Foley’s kick which would have given Australia a temporary lead in the dying minutes of the game, but Argentina nevertheless were ultimately the better side, incidents aside and can feel enormously proud of this victory so long in the making.  As for the laser incident itself, I have two hopes that the Argentinian players and management will release a concerted condemnation of this incident and make clear that such behaviour only tarnishes the reputation of the national side.  Secondly the IRB can easily put a stop to such behaviour by automatically awarding three points to any team whose kicker is the victim of a laser incident.  In so many games which hinge on the outcome of a last minute penalty kick, I would argue that throwing your team’s chances of victory away by boorish spectator behaviour will come to an end quickly if such fans know that it was their actions which lost the game for their team – on emerging from the stadium such fans would need to make sure they had a fast getaway car waiting with engine running in the parking lot in order to avoid being publicly lynched!

Nevertheless this unfortunate incident aside, it doesn’t detract from the fact that Argentina played a tight and well-disciplined game that saw them completely dominate Australia especially at scrum time.  The absence of team talisman Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe seemed to have little effect on the team and if anything they played with a fervour that looked intent on honoring Lobbe’s decision to forego the match to return to France to be reunited with his family for the birth of his son.  Argentina were immense across the park and had done their homework well.  Every player in the squad,bench included,stepped up and played to their full potential and the reward was a well-earned win.  The roar from the crowd each time the mighty Argentinian scrum won the ball off Australia was infectious and was obviously adding that extra bit of impetus to an already fired up Pumas squad.

There is no denying that the first fifteen minutes of the first half did not go well for the Pumas.  As we watched them give away two relatively soft tries, I am sure that most people saw a repeat of Australia’s thrashing of the Pumas in Roasario last year looming once again.  However, the Pumas had a quick team huddle under the goal posts, a quick chat and from there for the rest of the match simply did not look back.

The next hour saw Argentina dominate possession and shut down the impressive Tevita Kuridrani as he made valiant efforts at probing a solid Argentine defence.  Furthermore, the Pumas deftly recognised that as brilliant as he is with ball in hand, Israel Folau is weak in defence and effectively pressured him into making consistently poor decisions, which ensured that Australia were denied any counterattack ability especially in the latter half of the game.  As Argentina gained in confidence Australia looked increasingly bereft of ideas and as result more desperate.  This desperation translated itself into a complete breakdown of Australian discipline, which Argentina took full advantage of through the scrum and the boot of Nicolas Sanchez.  Referee Nigel Owens is for the most part one of the best referees on the International circuit and excels at explaining to players the nature of their offences.  Australia started to wear increasingly on his patience and you could see that towards the end of the game even skipper Michael Hooper gave up on arguing with Owens over the constant blowing of the whistle against Australia as he realized Australia were throwing this game through careless mistakes and lack of focus.

Australia tried to spark on a few occasions and as he did in Cape Town, the impressive Tevita Kuridrani looked dangerous throughout the match, but as the game wore on Argentina became increasingly effective at dealing with this Wallaby threat.  Australia were wrongfully denied three points through the laser incident during Bernard Foley’s penalty kick towards the end of the game.  The debate around this will rage long after this game’s final whistle.  If Foley had successfully got the penalty would the resulting lead have galvanized a weary and ill-disciplined Australian side to up their game and keep the ferocious Pumas final onslaught at bay?  More importantly would the Wallabies then have got that vital third try which is the only way they realistically could have won the game? To be honest I doubt it.  Nevertheless, whatever the result of that kick, Argentina turned up the heat for the last ten minutes to the point that Australia had no answers.  In the end the Pumas emerged victorious through heroic hard work whatever the result of the laser incident.  However you want to interpret it, Argentina won by either one point or four – but the fact of the matter is that they won and won deservedly.

The world now awaits a fired up and hugely improved Pumas side as they travel to Europe in November.  With many of their key players now earning their stripes on a weekly basis on the ferocious playing fields of France and England, Argentina’s opponents in November must surely be feeling nervous especially as the most powerful and effective scrum in world rugby comes knocking at their doors this autumn.  Prediction – we can’t wait!!!!

Rugby Championship 2014 – Round 5 – The Mighty Springbok returns!

South Africa vs Australia
Final Score – SA 28/Aus 10
Cape Town

For me this game was definitely one of the highlights of the Championship this year.  The last ten minutes of the game and the Springboks breathtaking performance will go down as a vintage rugby classic.  The whole game was good and kept everyone on the edge of their seats but the Springboks in the last ten minutes showed us what can be done once you get the planning and the chemistry right.  As a result we witnessed a breathtaking spectacle which surely must have gladdened the hearts of Springbok fans who have, for much of this tournament so far, been left feeling frustrated and confused.  If South Africa can build on this effort next weekend against New Zealand and learn how to do it away from home then South Africa’s chances at next year’s World Cup look good – correction VERY good.

However, before we get too carried away let’s also temper our enthusiasm with some hard facts.  The Springboks were trailing the visitors at half time and for much of the first half did not look the dominant side.  Something happened in the changing room at half time.  South Africa came back onto the pitch full of serious intent.  With twenty minutes to go, Meyer elected to bring on some old soldiers of the Springbok pack and this seemed to breathe a new sense of life and urgency into their efforts.  South Africa played with a great deal of intent in the first half but once again lacked composure and were deficient in execution.  Far too many handling errors were made despite an obvious willingness to run the ball and take Australia on up front.  However that man Cornal Hendricks who has continued to impress throughout the entire Championship on the wing, linked up brilliantly with Willie le Roux who then was stopped by a brilliant Wallaby tackle.  Nevertheless Hendricks speed and sidestepping ability plus his skill in a perfect offload to le Roux were spectacular to watch and South Africa were unlucky not to get the try.  Fortune favoured the Springboks though as continued forward pressure eventually saw Marcel Coetzee crash over for the try in a well worked forward effort through the maul.  South Africa looked like they were starting to click.

Australia rose to the challenge as the game swung back into their ascendancy and they led going into the second half.  There was obviously much talk in the Springbok dressing room at half time about cleaning up the schoolboy errors, holding on to the ball much more and generally shoring up their game plan.  I would go so far as to say that Heineke Meyer looked almost calm – a rare sight and he has obviously been studying videos of poker face All Black coach Steve Hansen.

Halfway through the second half, Schalk Burger came on to replace Teboho Mohoje who received a standing ovation from the crowd as he walked off the field after his debut as a Springbok, and which hopefully silenced the offensive press speculation of the week before as to whether he had been selected on the basis of the color of his skin or merit.  Mohoje was impressive in his debut and is one to watch for the future.  Schalk Burger, who has never been one of my favourite players due to his reckless style of play at times which leads to too many breakdowns in discipline, effectively silenced me as a critic in this game.  The man was simply immense and performed a one man demolition of Australia’s defences.  Bakkies Botha, another old soldier, seemed to thrive on his old teammate’s enthusiasm and the old guard of Botha, Burger, du Plessis and Matfield left Australia’s defences in tatters.  Watching these old warriors’ enjoyment of the task at hand was infectious for players and spectators alike.  Some of the younger new blood was thrown into the mix with the young but experienced Pat Lambie coming in at fly half for Handre Pollard who finally showed in this match that Meyer’s faith in him was justified.  Cobus Reinach the new scrum half came in for Francois Hougaard who also had a stellar game.  The rest was history as we watched entranced as the Springboks scored three unanswered tries and a drop goal all in the last ten minutes of the game.  In short – incredible!  I cannot remember the last time I have enjoyed ten minutes of rugby so much.  If this is the new look Springboks, then the world need take notice for 2015.  The final showpiece of the tournament at Ellis Park next weekend in Johannesburg against the old enemy, the All Blacks is shaping up to be a cracker at this rate!

As for Australia, there are some positives to take away from this game heading into next weekend’s decisive encounter with the Pumas in Argentina.  Tevita Kuridrani was electric and linked up with Matt Toomua at the centre was devastatingly effective in punching huge holes in the South African defence.  Had it not been for some brilliant last ditch South African defence then Kuridrani would have been over the white chalk for Australia at least twice in the first half.  However, apart from that Australian management has some serious soul searching to do on the plane to Argentina.  In the second half Australia’s forward pack was torn apart by South Africa and as they go up against the best scrum in world rugby right now next weekend, that surely is a concern.  Furthermore in the last fifteen minutes of the game, Australia looked exhausted and increasingly bereft of any answers to the relentless South African pressure.  In short, they were run ragged and seemed unable to play together effectively as a team.  Emergency surgery is needed quickly and of Australia and South Africa I think the Springboks will be more effective in preparing for the two very difficult final tests both sides face next week against the Pumas and All Blacks.

Argentina vs New Zealand
Final Score – NZ 34/Arg 13
La Plata

Probably the weakest game of the tournament so far for the Pumas and as I said last week, hopefully not a repetition of their fortunes at this stage of the competition last year.  That is not to say that they played badly, it was just that the All Blacks were just too good.

If you had read the form books and predictions leading up to this match, then to be honest there is not much else to report.  The All Blacks looked to clinch the Championship in this game and thus the silverware, and as a result put up a class performance that got the job done with no margin of error.  The Pumas were left having to play a valiant game of catch up rugby as they sought to salvage some pride from the whole affair.

New Zealand were clinical and ruthless and produced a blistering display of rugby that showed just how well they were prepared for this game.  They expertly played to the Pumas’ strengths, especially up front and as a result their devastating backline were free to cast their magic, which they did in four skillfully worked tries.  High school coaches around the world should tape this game and show it to their charges as an example of how to master every aspect of the modern game.  Beauden Barrett at fly half was once again superb and despite the drama in the New Zealand press at Aaron Cruden missing the flight to Argentina due to an excess of drinking the night before, showed the world that a lack of depth at number 10 is simply something New Zealand does not suffer from

The All Black backline of Conrad Smith, Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, Ben Smith and newcomer Malakai Fekitoa were all outstanding on attack and defence and given superb quick ball by the impressive Aaron Smith at scrum half.  For me there is no question that Aaron Smith has without doubt been the scrum half of the tournament.  Smith’s work rate has been impressive and his coverage of all areas of the park is outstanding coupled with an ability to effectively tackle players more than twice his size.  If you look at this New Zealand performance you realize you are watching a team that has welded all the necessary composite skills of the game into one unit – in short the world’s only true complete team at the moment

Argentina,meanwhile, fought valiantly and took some consolation in a brilliantly worked try at the end of the game that had been looming throughout the match.  They had threatened throughout the game but as usual just lacked that vital finishing touch.   Nevertheless their defence was strong and they certainly looked threatening with ball in hand – at no point in the match did they look like a pushover.  They were able to compete against New Zealand for 80 minutes, it’s just they couldn’t ultimately take apart a team that was clinically focused on putting the finishing touches on their claim for this year’s Rugby Championship.  If Argentina can build on the positives from this match then I would give them the edge against Australia next weekend in Mendoza.

Fixtures this weekend

South Africa vs New Zealand – Johannesburg

It’s going to be a clash of the titans next Saturday at Ellis Park, as although the Championship is now well and truly decided, a Springbok/All Black encounter in South Africa always has an epic aura around it.  Last year’s fixture was one of THE games of the year and next weekend’s meeting looks set to be much of the same.  A fast, furious and intensely physical contest is what we can expect to see at Ellis Park as the two best sides in the world re-enact one of international rugby’s greatest rivalries.  Both the Springboks and All Blacks hold each other in great esteem and thus a victory is a true vindication of skill on the day – expect no quarters to be given

At this stage it is impossible to predict who will emerge the victor.  Technically New Zealand clearly has the edge, but after the Springboks spectacular end of match annihilation of the Wallabies last weekend in Cape Town, the South Africans are catching up fast to their Kiwi counterparts.  Throw into the mix a fervent and passionate home crowd in one of international test rugby’s great cathedral grounds and the Springboks will be very hard to beat if they keep up the standard they showed the world in Cape Town.  Heineke Meyer finally seems to be consolidating a strong team with a clear sense of what they have to do and how they have to play in order to beat the best in the world.  The new talent that South Africa has chosen to invest in is starting to show clear promise and overall the Springboks are hopefully finally starting to move in the right direction.

New Zealand on the other hand will recognize this and will no doubt somehow notch their game up yet another level if that is even possible, considering they are consistently setting the benchmark on how to play the game.  They regard any win against the Springboks as critical to maintaining the All Black legend and hold the Springboks in greater regard despite past performances than probably any other team in world rugby.  South Africa will bring their A game but expect New Zealand to bring their A+ game.  With two such evenly matched and powerful teams, anyone with a heart condition or frail nerves should probably look away next Saturday – it’s going to be a roller coaster ride!

Argentina vs Australia – Mendoza

For those of us who have Argentina as their favourite underdog team, Saturday’s fixture in the heartland of Argentine rugby will be a nerve wracking affair.  I would not use Argentina’s performance against the All Blacks as the basis of predicting the result.  The Pumas will be up for this and sensing blood after seeing Australia implode against the Springboks in South Africa.  Add to that various elements of discord in the Wallaby camp and Australia could be ripe for the taking.  The question is at the end of the Championship can Argentina take all the lessons they have learnt this past six weeks and put them all together to produce the curtain call performance of their Championship?  Of concern to them will be the absence of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who although not Captain, this duty having been passed to the inspirational Augustin Creevy, is still nevertheless a spiritual talisman for the rest of the team.  However, if they can go into this match feeling proud of their consistent improvement over the last six weeks and determined to get that first win, then I think it is there for the taking with the home crowd making more than enough noise to provide that additional motivation.  Patience, composure and sticking to the skills and core strengths of the Pumas should see them through against a Wallaby side brimming with talent but lacking cohesion.

That being said, Australia will not come to Mendoza with their tails between their legs.  They have everything to prove and furthermore know the grilling they will get on their return home if it is their scalp which is to be the Pumas first in the Rugby Championship.  Australia have the talent but as mentioned above lack the cohesion.  Furthermore, I cannot see a weary and at times weak Australian forward pack being able to stand up to the Pumas phenomenal scrum and set of forwards.  Australia have shown consistent weaknesses in the scrum and Argentina probably have the best scrum in world rugby right now.  If Australia cannot match the challenge the Pumas will give them in this area, then I foresee increasing fatigue starting to set in on the side of the Wallabies.  This in turn seems to lead to frustration for Australia and a corresponding lack of discipline at the breakdown.  If Argentina consistently gain the upper hand in the scrum, then I think the last twenty minutes of the game will see Australia start to fall apart and a certain sense of desperation set in.  Nevertheless many pundits predicted a strong Argentinian win for this fixture in last year’s Championship and it ended up being a comprehensive thrashing of the Pumas by the Wallabies.  If Australia come prepared and with a healthy dose of respect for their opponents and dismiss last year’s result as a completely different scenario than the one they will face this weekend, their chances to  come away with a win are good.  On the other hand a misplaced sense of confidence and lack of discipline by Australia will see the Pumas get the result that everyone has been predicting for so long.  We wait and see who has done their homework for what looks set to be a fascinating encounter.

Rugby Championship – Round 5 Preview

Fixtures this weekend

South Africa vs Australia – Cape Town

Undoubtedly the fixture of the weekend, as these two sides slug it out to see who really is the second best team in the world after the All Blacks. With the All Blacks most likely clinching the Championship this weekend in Argentina, this match is about standings and developing both national teams for next year’s World Cup.  In this regard I commend Heineke Meyer’s selection.  He has boldly chosen to  blood younger players for whom this kind of big game experience will be invaluable in preparing them for the Rugby World Cup next year.  Furthermore in two standout selections he has chosen to continue to favour Jan Serfontein over Damien de Allende at centre and made the bold move of selecting the uncapped Teboho Mohoje at flanker over Schalk Burger.

In the latter selection there has been much talk in the press, mainly outside of South Africa, as to whether this has been based on colour or ability. As far as I am concerned this is insulting to both South African rugby and Teboho himself.  While I can understand some in the media jumping to the conclusion that Mohoje has been selected on the basis of color as he is an uncapped Springbok for such an important game, it is nevertheless irrelevant.  Were the media asking the same question of white uncapped players at the start of the Championship?  For all intents and purposes South Africa has lost the Rugby Championship and as a result the priority is now to use such big games to develop the talent for next year’s World Cup.  On the basis of this and Mohoje’s form with the Cheetahs then his selection is more than justified.  Let us ignore this pointless debate about the status of the colour bar in South African rugby and instead focus on where the Springboks need to look for a side capable of bringing home the Webb Ellis trophy next year and how to develop the players to do this.

Australia come to Cape Town with a new found sense of confidence that mirrors their initial strong showing against the All Blacks in the first round of the Championship. Despite the schooling they received from the All Blacks in Auckland in the second round of the Championship they have shown that they have a talented side capable of producing results when it matters, as shown by the at home wins against Argentina and South Africa.  However if we look closely at those wins, it is evident that this side although talented can be beaten.  Let’s face it Australia were lucky to win in Perth against the Springboks, and had South Africa hung on to the ball more, played a smarter tactical game and not been victims of a questionable refereeing decision the score line would not have been in Australia’s favor.  In the match against the Pumas, another 5 minutes and the score would have been at least a try if not an outright win for the Pumas as they stormed back against Australia in the second half.  Therefore we are looking at a side that JUST wins matches and this in the long term against quality opposition will not be good enough if Australia want to live up to their claim that they are the second best team in the world.

South Africa on the other hand I think will begin to gel and start to get consistently better provided players and management can come to agreement on an effective game plan. If Meyer can stick with a consistent selection in the next few matches that blends new talent and experience, there is no question in my mind that South Africa will be the team to challenge in next year’s World Cup after the All Blacks.

So in short, my prediction is a gruelling encounter that runs close for the first 60 minutes, but with a passionate crowd in Cape Town, I see the Boks pulling comfortably ahead in the last quarter leaving Australia with too many question marks. The weather is expected to be good and with two teams having the ability to play great running rugby, it should be a fast paced game.  Either way an exciting contest looms!

Argentina vs New Zealand – La Plata 

For everyone who is a Pumas supporter, this match is regarded with some degree of trepidation. In last year’s Championship, after an impressive opening four games the Pumas looked set to continue this form at home in their final two games.  Although no one expected them to seriously challenge the All Blacks, everyone was convinced that their last game against Australia would be the definitive match for them where they would take their first win in the tournament.  Sadly their last two games at home last year were a total anticlimax and the Pumas exited the Championship with a whimper, with many arguing that their last game against Australia was their weakest performance of the whole Championship.

So this year we watch with bated breath. The Pumas although having no wins so far to show for their efforts this year in the Championship, have played some superb rugby.  These last two fixtures at home should be the catalyst to allow them to show the world that they mean business next year at the World Cup.  The game against New Zealand will be challenging and given the All Blacks superlative form, no one expects them to win but if they can run the All Blacks close and take this momentum into the game against Australia the following weekend a victory is surely there for the taking.

As for New Zealand, for them the rest of the Championship is merely a formality in terms of silverware on offer as they have for all intents wrapped up the tournament. They have unquestionably been the form team and deserve the title of Champions.  However, they will still want to put in a good performance in Argentina as the two teams will be opponents in the pool stages of next year’s World Cup, and the All Blacks are very aware that Argentina will be an even better team by that stage.  Furthermore a good effort in Argentina will help New Zealand face South Africa in Johannesburg next week, which is already being billed as one of the games to watch this year.  Therefore New Zealand will seek to show that the loss of Aaron Cruden this weekend and his replacement by the exceptionally capable Beauden Barrett means that the All Black machine can easily weather the odd PR mess up and lack of team discipline as they simply have so much depth to call on.

So on the table at the end of the day for both teams is the need to put in a good showing regardless of positions in the Championship. For Argentina it will be to prove to their adoring fans that the hard work of August and September has developed a Pumas side for the rest of the rugby world to reckon with, while for New Zealand it will be consolidation of the world’s best side and to maintain their unstoppable momentum for the curtain call clash with South Africa next week.  Let’s hope both sides can deliver!

Rugby Championship 2014 – 4th round, winner takes all

New Zealand vs South Africa
Final score – NZ 14/SA 10

As predicted, the Springboks dug deep and finally came up with a performance which although not perfect was nevertheless a considerable step up from their previous three outings in the Championship. It would appear that Heineke Meyer may finally have the semblance of a reasonable game plan, and with the Rugby Championship inevitably lost to New Zealand at this stage of the competition, he is probably correct in using the remaining games to really solidify a team featuring many younger and less experienced players against world class opposition. This experience and the November Internationals in Europe will be critical in boosting South Africa’s chances at next year’s World Cup.

The positives were there for all to see. South Africa’s scrum and lineout were vastly improved and the new blood seemed to contribute significantly to this. Handre Pollard at fly half it must be said played a good game in a tense and difficult encounter and if he keeps it up he looks to be a serious contributor to South Africa’s World Cup challenge next year. Jan Serfontein at centre was a far superior player to the nonexistent De Allende as a newcomer and if Meyer has any common sense he will put his efforts into promoting and developing this young player who has serious potential. Cornal Hendricks once again on the wing showed his blistering pace scoring yet another spectacular try. If he doesn’t get recognition as winger of the tournament then there is no justice.

However, despite this improved Springbok performance, South Africa nevertheless ultimately showed signs of creaking under pressure, going from a half time lead to ultimately losing the game in the second half through too many unforced errors. Yes as always is was wet and windy in Wellington but this is still no excuse. South Africa must learn to improve their skills in such conditions otherwise they are not a contender in the world game. Fatigue and a lack of discipline reared its ugly head once more for the Springboks in the second half and in this game it cannot be blamed on poor refereeing, as unlike the previous games in the Championship the standard of refereeing this weekend was top notch in both games. Furthermore, there was far too much kicking away of good possession and the replacement of Ruan Pienaar by Francois Hougaard due to injury, seemed to only heighten this tendency. I have to confess that although I am one of his biggest fans, Willie le Roux was also guilty of kicking more often than running the ball, and indeed has tended to favour this option too much during the course of the Championship. I still hold that he is one of best of the Springboks current pack, but can’t help feel that he needs to sort this aspect of his game out, and hopefully the next two contests will show this has been done.

South Africa did manage to find a second wind in the last ten minutes of the game which saw them steadfastly camped in the New Zealand half of the field. Several opportunities to cross the white line went missing. Handre Pollard did manage to take a great drop goal and put them within four points. In the last five minutes a heroic All Black defence managed to keep out a veritable Springbok onslaught, but once again unforced errors kept the Springboks away from those last desperate five points and thus the win. It was close, it was nail-biting but in the end New Zealand showed once more how they are the masters of leaping from the jaws of defeat at the last minute.

New Zealand played a good game, but once again although heroic in defence in the last ten minutes showed that they are not invincible and can be beaten. South Africa had the All Blacks on the ropes on several occasions. What saved New Zealand was their dogged determination and ability to maintain their composure right to the end. They dominated possession for much of the game and showed South Africa that hanging onto the ball is preferable to kicking it away, please take note Heineke Meyer. Nevertheless, South Africa’s defence in light of their lack of possession was superlative and vastly improved showing that they are still one of the hardest teams in the world to get past physically. When South Africa did have the ball they looked dangerous and it is frustrating for any Springbok supporter that we didn’t get to see more of this. We can only hope that in Cape Town in two weeks, South Africa takes this to heart and shows us a powerful defence and a great running game, which they certainly have the potential to do. It would seem that the experimentation with the side of the last few weeks is now over and now it is time to produce results and build on every game – let’s hope for both the Springboks and world rugby that that is the case and we are in for some great rugby spectacles.

Australia vs Argentina
Final score – Aus 32/Arg 25

Hands up if you are frustrated Pumas supporter. As the world’s great underdog team with a committed fan base across the globe, Argentina excite us but ultimately disappoint us. We all know they have it in them and that this side is approaching the greatness of the Pumas’ 2007 World Cup side – it’s just we get so many tantalising glimpses but so few results.

There is no question that Argentina started this match against the Wallabies poorly, but from the second half till the end found that missing ingredient to suddenly ramp up their game. They should have won this game, but to not at least get the draw is disappointing beyond belief. A lack of patience, composure and discipline in the dying minutes of the game saw them lose an obvious try right beneath the posts which would have been an easy conversion ending the match in a draw. We can forgive them not winning the match but there is no doubt that we all are a bit disgruntled at the loss. If we feel that – then how must the Pumas feel? There is little point in rehashing the point every week that the Pumas lack that finishing touch and the composure and concentration to make them that killer side. The potential is there but not the execution. If unlike last year’s competition they can go into these last two games at home in front of their adoring fans with their heads held high and determined to get their first win in this Championship – they should and I emphasise ‘should’ be able to finally show us what they are capable of. A strong showing against New Zealand should then translate into a win in their last game of the Championship against Australia. I won’t say anything more – they know what they have to do.

As for Australia, despite them getting the win, I am not convinced that this is a great side and furthermore find it hard to believe that the Webb Ellis trophy could end up living in Australia after 2015 for a few years. They have eked out some meagre wins but more due to errors made by the opposition than their own skill or style of play. The forwards are less than impressive and Australia have yet to find a halfback combination that really outshines any of those offered by their respective oppositions. Meanwhile their backs are fast but unimpressive in defence. The only really standout player for me this Championship for Australia has been Michael Hooper at flanker who has impressed with a huge work rate and some blistering runs in all four games. While Israel Folau is impressive when cut loose he appears weak in defence especially with ball in hand and his resulting kicking game shows a serious lack of technical understanding of the game.

There is no question that Ewen McKenzie has made significant improvements since taking over at the end of 2013, but has yet to really produce a side that is the finished product and one that is able to clinically outclass the other big teams in world rugby. Sure they may get the wins but they are unlikely to dominate any team to the point where you could see them getting consistent wins over the big teams. On the basis of their current form I think Australia will struggle in November in Europe, especially against England and Ireland. Like Heineke Meyer Ewen McKenzie has a lot of work to do between now and the World Cup. In that regard for both coaches the last two games of the Rugby Championship will be critical in setting a sound platform for the November tours to Europe and resulting consolidation of their sides for next year’s World Cup.

Refereeing consistency please!

With not much to report on the home front in Canada we skip our usual wrap up of the game in Canada and use this opportunity to take a look at an issue that sadly is in danger of detracting from the enjoyment of our great game – refereeing.

Last weekend’s potential spectacles were marred by poor refereeing which in some people’s view directly influenced the outcome of a pair of critical games for the four competing sides. I for one tend to disagree that the refereeing albeit sloppy determined the outcome of the games. As mentioned earlier it is inevitable that in the frenetic pace of International Test Rugby one or two decisions will rightly or wrongly go against you and teams must learn to adapt to this. Blaming the referee for bad calls is no panacea for a teams’ weak performance. South Africa lost last week because ultimately they played poorly and when it mattered most did not rise to the challenge. The Pumas lost not because they were denied a try and had their superior scrum subjected to some bizarre interpretations. At least Argentina were humble enough to admit that it was their concentration that let them down and the fact that they were playing a superior side.

Nevertheless there is no question that poor refereeing can influence a team’s morale on the field especially if they are being penalised for incorrect calls or subjective interpretations of the rules. In both games George Clancy and Pascal Gauzere were guilty of this. Pascal Gauzere called Leonardo Senatore’s charge down a knock-on and thus disallowed a brilliant and perfectly legitimate try by the Pumas. This coupled with him constantly penalizing Argentina at the breakdown and letting New Zealand completely off the hook, especially in the scrum where Argentina were clearly and legally superior, it is not surprising that a certain weariness and frustration set in amongst the Pumas leading to the critical lapses in concentration that ultimately lost them the game. If it is perceived by a team that there is a certain bias against them by the referee, it is inevitable that confusion and a lack of coherence in gameplay sets in. This is inexcusable in International Test Rugby where the margins for error are so small.

As for George Clancy and his controversial yellow card given to Bryan Habana the same applies. There is no question that South Africa played poorly based on a totally ineffective game plan given the conditions. However, given the fact that they are a big and physical side the contact nature of their game will always be rather intense. In this area they were much more noticeable and effective than Australia. However, despite completely legal albeit powerful tackling this style was perceived as foul play on several occasions by George Clancy. Teams should adopt their game plan to the conditions on the pitch not the style and perceptions of the referee. If this happens then sadly the team in question is playing at referee psychology and not focusing on the game at hand and the strategy required to win. It was obvious that this was affecting the Springboks on Saturday in Perth and in this area they deserve our empathy. Like I say it doesn’t detract from the fact that they ultimately threw a game they should have won, but having to deal with the constant discrepancies in George Clancy’s refereeing did not help their cause.

The International Rugby Board has to take a much more proactive role in training and disciplining referees. Rugby teams should be playing each other not the referee as well. Furthermore if we are to generate greater interest in our glorious game, newcomers will be put off by rules that seem to change from game to game. Consistency is the key here. One possible solution I saw put forward that I think has a great deal of merit is a challenge system like there is in professional tennis. Each team would be allowed to challenge a set number of referee calls per match. There would be a limit placed on these challenges, I would argue that no more than 1 per team per half, so a total of two per game per team. However if the crowd sees it on the replay on the big screen and the players know that it is a questionable call it would seem fair that a review much like the television match official ruling on tries would be appropriate. If we are to generate a level playing field for players and referees and the enjoyment of rugby’s devoted fans then surely something along these lines must be incorporated into the modern game.

The IRB says it is committed to simplifying the game and promoting fair and free running rugby – well then put your money where your mouth is gentlemen!

Rugby Championship 2014 – Excuse me, ref!

New Zealand vs Argentina
Final score – NZ 28/Arg 9

We will leave out the fact that the refereeing of this game was poor and discuss that later. It detracted from what was a solid contest and one in which the Pumas made the All Blacks work hard for 80 minutes. The only thing I will say on the refereeing is that the score was actually 28-14 (16 if the Pumas would have converted the try they were denied by the referee). In this day and age with the technology we have at our disposal, to disallow Leonardo Senatore’s try from a perfectly legitimate charge down of an All Black kick was scandalous and no doubt seriously affected the Pumas morale as they could legitimately feel that the referee was biased against them no matter how well they played.

However, as impressive as Argentina was they nevertheless were, as was expected, ultimately taught a lesson by the clinically superior All Blacks. As a spectator this was perhaps most evident when New Zealand scored their second try through Liam Messam. It was Argentina’s put in at the scrum and they, as for most of the game, comfortably won the scrum challenge and then for some reason lost concentration. The ball popped forward off an Argentine foot back into the hands of New Zealand, and into the lightning quick hands of scrum half Aaron Smith who demonstrated his awareness of how to create quick space and the end result was Liam Messam crashing across the white line. For me this sums up Argentina’s quintessential problem, it is a game of 80 minutes gentlemen at this level, and up against a side like New Zealand you can NEVER relax for a second. Nobody expected Argentina to win this game, including Argentina themselves; however you could see that they were shocked that they threw away a very credible performance against the world’s best side on such temporary lapses of concentration.

Nevertheless, despite this it was a good game in tough conditions. Once again though New Zealand demonstrated to the world what extraordinary depth they have in their team. Beauden Barrett was outstanding at 10, even though he struggled to convert New Zealand’s tries. This was resolved as New Zealand pulled another star fly half off the bench in the form of Colin Slade who promptly proceeded to make all his goal kicks. It is official, somewhere deep in the Southern Alps is a secret factory that produces world class number tens – look at the list for the current All Black selectors – Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade. The rest of the world doesn’t stand a chance.

Argentina are still to be credited however with putting in a big performance. They matched New Zealand up front in the scrums and in the lineouts. Their running game although not as visionary as New Zealand’s was still commendable and they never gave up. In weather that was less than ideal, Argentina continued to show that against the world’s best team they have come a VERY long way. Had they not been disallowed a perfectly acceptable try by the bizarre interpretation of the game’s rules by the referee then the actual score line would have been much closer. As New Zealand’s Richie McCaw pointed out after the match, New Zealand were made to work hard by a team that is on the cusp of something great – Australia take note!


Australia vs South Africa
Final score – Aus 24/SA 23

How best to describe this game? In my humble opinion a truly mediocre performance from the 2nd and 3rd best ranked teams in the world, which left many including yours truly wondering how they even hold these rankings in the first place. It was windy and wet in Perth and neither team played with any great degree of understanding of the conditions they were faced with, and quite frankly either team would have been lucky to get a result based on their style of play. There has been much discussion of the appalling refereeing provided by Irish referee George Clancy but as mentioned above this will be discussed later. Nevertheless it is inevitable that refereeing decisions are going to go against you from time to time but this is no excuse to throw games, and that is quite frankly what South Africa did against a poor Australian side that then proceeded to capitalise on a demoralised and weak South African team.

In short we did not witness a rugby spectacle from two of the world’s best sides. Instead we saw a collection of schoolboy rugby errors made all the more comical by weak refereeing. South Africa started strongly, with once again the undisputed star of the Springbok side at the moment, Cornal Hendricks on the wing scoring another superlative try out wide. Coach Heineke Meyer’s decision to start the experienced Morne Steyn at fly half seemed to pay dividends as he effortlessly slotted his kicks on goal and for the most part made sensible place kicking decisions. Australia looked competent but not overly exciting and Israel Folau’s defensive kicking at fullback into a swirling wind left much to be desired.

However at halftime, the scores were relatively even with it being 14-11 in the Springboks’ favour. Watching the dressing rooms at halftime for me was the key as to who was going to win this game. The Wallaby dressing room looked pensive and calm, whereas I was appalled to see South African coach Heineke Meyer gesticulating wildly like some demented Jack in the Box to his charges urging them to lob the ball high for the team to chase. Given the wild, swirling and unpredictable windy conditions in Perth, this was pure madness! Sure enough rather than use their common sense, the Springboks decided to take their coach’s advice and seemed surprised that kick after kick either went out on the full, or didn’t make touch and landed comfortably in the arms of a rushing Wallaby pack, causing endless knock-ons and scenes reminiscent of a volleyball match rather than a rugby game.

Add to this the fact that Morne Steyn’s game deteriorated dramatically in the second half, and the writing was on the wall for the Springboks. Although they initially pulled ahead – the last twenty minutes saw the Springboks make some staggeringly basic errors. The Wallabies didn’t play well they -just simply capitalised on mistake after mistake made by the Springboks, namely through a reliance on a kicking game in conditions that were completely unsuitable for such an approach. There has been regular criticism in the South African press of the Springboks kicking away perfectly good possession and this was to be seen to the full in Perth. Australia did have moments of brilliance, especially once Israel Folau got to link up with his Waratahs’ teammate Kurtley Beale who for this game was sensibly called off the bench to play in the position that best suits him of centre.

There is no question that the sin binning of Bryan Habana for an alleged high tackle by referee George Clancy with just over ten minutes left in the game, had a huge impact. This was made worse by the fact that the assistant referee urged Clancy to not give Habana a yellow card as it was only a penalty and not a card offence. However Clancy decided to ignore the view of his assistant referee who had been right on the spot when the offence occurred. The replay clearly showed there had been no intent in the tackle and it was an unfortunate accident in the run of play. As unfortunate as this was and given the inconsistency in refereeing as the exact same tackle had been made on Jean de Villiers ten minutes earlier by a Wallaby player with no mention, South Africa still had no reason to cite this as the reason they lost the game. They have beaten better sides with close score lines and ten minutes to go with 14 men in the past. Instead, they played poorly made terrible decisions and ultimately paid the price of seeing Australia cross the white line at the last gasp and Bernard Foley get the conversion to ensure that Australia took the spoils.

In the end Australia squeaked home the victors but it wasn’t convincing. South Africa did take some positives from the game, their scrum and lineouts finally seemed to repair themselves though I can’t help feeling that this was only due to the fact that they were up against inferior opposition, but to be honest that’s about it. Even star fullback Willie le Roux couldn’t seem to make head nor tail of the wind and as a result spent much of the game making wild kicks and positioning himself poorly in relation to the ball. As for Australia, they made much of their victory but I for one am not convinced. Both teams head into this weekend with serious concerns. If the Springboks play like they have in these first three outings I fear they will be slaughtered by a rampant All Black side brimming with confidence and talent. Australia have too many question marks to be able to face up to a Pumas side that is on the brink of greatness. Both Ewen McKenzie and Heineke Meyer as coaches of the two most lacklustre sides in the competition have an enormous amount of work to do in the coming week.


Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs South Africa – Wellington

Based on South Africa’s performance to date, one can’t help get the feeling that this will be an unpleasant outing for the Springboks. Rain and wind are predicted and if Heineke Meyer fails to learn the error of his game plan from similar conditions last week in Perth and once more insists on kicking away good possession, then the All Blacks will run rings around the Springboks.

However, here is the conundrum – as awful as South Africa are at the moment this is one fixture which they somehow manage to always rise to. The fact that it is one of International Rugby’s great rivalries seems to somehow cause the Springboks to find that something extra in their game. Therefore I doubt it will be the rout that many are predicting.

Nevertheless there are concerns. Given the magnitude of the task facing them and the sheer quality of the opposition, I was once again amazed to see that Meyer has selected Handre Pollard as the starting fly-half. The youngster somehow seems to have a special place in Heineke Meyer’s heart, but as I questioned Meyer’s game plan last week, once again I question his wisdom this week. Morne Steyn is not even on the bench and while I agree he had a shocker of a game last weekend in Perth, he is still a proven quantity. All good players have off days, and I would put last weekend’s performance by Steyn as a case in point. A Springbok/All Black clash is about as intense as International rugby gets and is not the place for an inexperienced fly half such as Pollard to cut his teeth, especially when he has failed to impress in his previous two Test outings in the competition. Furthermore, in place of Morne Steyn, Pat Lambie has his first go on the bench as the replacement fly half. Lambie is a quality fly half but as witnessed in the Super Rugby quarter final in New Zealand this year, still lacks big match temperament and calmness and therefore I would argue is a liability.

New Zealand is having no such problems as they see the return of the spectacular Aaron Cruden at Number 10. They are fielding a completely proven side against South Africa, including the bench, and there is no doubt that on paper and at home they will unequivocally be the favourites for this fixture. Like South Africa they will be fired up and passions will run high for this one, but in addition to the passion unlike South Africa they have the skill level to match up to it.

I hope to be pleasantly surprised, and have the chance to watch a thrilling and tight encounter between the two best sides in the world but I am not betting on it. I sadly fear that the match will very much show us how far ahead New Zealand is and how quickly South Africa is starting to slide down the global rugby order. Let’s hope that South Africa finally use this fixture to show the world that they are still a rugby force to be reckoned with and contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy next year.

Australia vs Argentina – Brisbane

As a closet Pumas supporter I like many people am really looking forward to this game and ultimately think it is the most exciting prospect of the weekend. Australia have so far failed to impress whilst Argentina are building momentum with every match in this tournament. Most people are convinced that their first ever win in this Championship is on the cards this year and Australia are unquestionably the target. The key question is can Argentina remain completely focused for the full 80 minutes and not let up in their concentration and intensity?

If they can do this then I am sure this game is theirs. They have run South Africa close and could have won both games as well as making the world’s best team the All Blacks work extremely hard for 80 minutes. The Pumas are motivated, focused and hungry for a win. Australia know this and will bring their A game to Brisbane on Saturday. The Wallabies will not want to go down in history as the side that gave Argentina their first win in the competition especially as they will then have to face Argentina again at home.

However, with the exception of the backline, Argentina on paper outclasses Australia in all areas of the game. It is how Australia uses its devastating backline and the phenomenal Israel Folau that will determine who walks away with the prize on Saturday in Brisbane. Argentina will dominate them in the scrums and at the breakdown and Nicolas Sanchez at fly half is easily the equal of Bernard Foley and many would argue a much more enterprising player. Argentina’s centres are quality and their wings and fullback are a force to be reckoned with. They may not have quite the pace of Australia’s backline but if they get good quick ball from the forwards and good service from Argentina’s halfbacks then they can contain the danger posed by Israel Folau. The difference for me is that Argentina is a complete team, whereas Australia has brilliant superstars but who lack the ability to play well as a team. This I think will be the key that separates the two on Saturday.

In that regard I think that Argentina may just have the edge if they last the full 80 minutes and as a result I am putting my bet on the Pumas, not by much but a narrow win by one or two points. For this match at least we are fortunate in having one of the better referees available at the moment and this should prove to be a cracker!

Rugby Championship 2014 – Round 3 preview

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Argentina – Napier

While, there is little doubt that New Zealand are the favourites to walk away with a win from this match and easily take first place in the competition standings, it won’t be done without considerable effort and Argentina will cause problems for the All Blacks especially through their outstanding forward pack. The days where the All Blacks could write off a match against the Pumas as a training match are long gone. Furthermore, despite the anomaly of the Pumas being winless so far in the competition, this Pumas side and Daniel Hourcade’s coaching style have seriously impressed their opposition. South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have all remarked on the talent in the Pumas current lineup and Argentina has earned some serious respect from the “Big Three”.

So what’s likely to happen in Napier on Saturday? Firstly the weather does not look to be too kind and although not on the biblical proportions of Pretoria, will nevertheless slow down the ball and make running it less of an option. This provides Argentina an excellent opportunity to take on the All Blacks up front. If they can maintain constant pressure on the All Blacks at the breakdown which they have shown they are more than capable of doing, shut down the opportunities for New Zealand out wide and generally keep the ball in tight with their forwards given the potentially slippery ground – they will find gaps in the All Blacks’ defence. This will both rattle and irritate New Zealand to the point where they will start giving away penalties, as we have seen so many times before, especially now as referees have key All Black players like Richie McCaw on their radar.

While I cannot see Argentina winning the game, a strong showing by them against the best team in the world will be a massive confidence booster going into the next round against a questionable Australian outfit, especially up front. Therefore, I think Argentina’s expectations of this game are not necessarily to win but to really make the All Blacks uncomfortable and run them close, gaining the Pumas even more respect.

New Zealand are unlikely to underestimate the quality of this Pumas side, as they have tended to do in the past. In the last three years, there have been periods of serious discomfort for the All Blacks during this fixture in the Championship. Ironically Argentina seems to play better against the All Blacks in New Zealand than they do at home. New Zealand will also not be fielding the same team that annihilated Australia two weeks ago. Aaron Cruden will not participate in this game due to injury and is ably replaced by Beauden Barrett at fly half.   However as impressive as Barrett can be, he certainly has an equal in Nicolas Sanchez of Argentina. It will be the battle of the fly halves and the forwards that will determine this game, especially given the forecast wet weather. New Zealand’s experience ultimately will still probably win the day, but they are definitely going to have to work for it. In short a fascinating fixture awaits us.

Australia vs South Africa – Perth

It’s interesting that in many ways this is the game that will really determine where everyone stands in the Rugby Championship at the halfway point in the tournament.   Unless Argentina pulls off a miracle in Napier then sadly despite being one of the most impressive teams, they sadly do not have the results that reflect their performance on the field. Of the four teams, the only two that have put in impressive performances have been Argentina and New Zealand – in the case of New Zealand this was only in the second game and both of Argentina’s games were outstanding but without the sought after result. So at this stage the question is whose scalp is Argentina going to take on their first ever win? Meanwhile New Zealand seems to be settling into invincible mode.

That leaves us with the two contenders in this fixture who so far have singularly failed to impress their fans and critics. South Africa have been for the most part woeful, despite clawing out two lacklustre victories at the last minute, while Australia benefitted from an off-form New Zealand in their first game, only to be subsequently made a laughing stock by the All Blacks the following week.

There has been much talk in the South African and Australian press in the last two weeks about lessons learned and how both sides are brimming with potential that is just not being fully utilised. The coaching staff have been well and truly put under the microscope in both countries, especially in South Africa where many are questioning Heineke Meyer’s so called game plan or as many believe lack of one.

As a result in many ways this weekend’s game between South Africa and Australia is of enormous importance to both sides’ morale and confidence, as well as showing the world where these two teams stand in the global pecking order.

Australia know if they falter then the Pumas will arrive next weekend smelling victory and opportunities to be had, while South Africa know that if they don’t put a decent score line between them and the Wallabies they too will suffer horrifically at the hands of the All Blacks in New Zealand a week later. Therefore for both sides a simple win by a few points will simply not be good enough – an all-out barnstorming victory with a 15 to 20 point difference in the score line is the only option, and one which their fans will expect.

The changes to the Springbok side, and Heineke Meyer realising the futility of recent experimentation, sees a more settled Springbok side with considerably more experience running onto the field in Perth. Most Springbok supporters are breathing a great sigh of relief to see Morne Steyn starting at 10. The forward pack looks more settled as well, with a good balance of youth and experience, though like most people I am surprised at the willingness to try and reinvent Victor Matfield’s career. As great a player as he was I am not really sure he has another World Cup in him at his age. South Africa need to get their younger players the game time and experience they need for next year’s rugby showpiece. Although Meyer has tried to do this in the past two games, his choices were inappropriate given the intensity of this tournament. It would have made more sense to blood some of these younger and less experienced players on the European tour in November, where the intensity of matches is there but not the level of competition coupled with the public’s expectations of the Rugby Championship.

On paper these are essentially two completely equal sides, and as a result it will be almost impossible to call. Australia still have issues in the forward department, but then so do South Africa and this weekend will show which of the two has done their homework better. Like Meyer, Australian coach Ewen Mckenzie has realized the error of his ways in trying unproven halfback combinations and this match sees the out of place Kurtley Beale sitting on the bench as opposed to starting at number 10. As for the backs, once again Australia’s back three are the equal of their South African counterparts – it will just come down to which team plays a complete 15 man game on Saturday and does so for the full 80 minutes.