Canadian Rugby Roundup

This week we take a quick look at Canada’s fixtures in Europe this autumn. I was surprised to see many citing these fixtures as excellent preparation for Canada’s campaign in next year’s Rugby World Cup. I for one, although not denying the value of the games, can’t help being disappointed at the quality of the opposition we are up against.

So who do we have to test our spurs against over a four week period? Samoa, Namibia and Romania. Of these three I would argue the only real test will be Samoa as a judge of where we stand in our preparation for next year’s World Cup. This is not to devalue the importance of the games against Namibia and Romania or to show any disrespect to the rugby played by these two countries, especially as Romania will be in our pool at next year’s World Cup. However, if Canada is to compete and hold its head high amongst the world’s best next year then we need some more quality opposition. I was very disheartened to see that we are not playing any of the Six Nations or Rugby Championship countries. The fact that we are not playing any of our major pool opponents, France, Italy or Ireland is inexcusable. Although I am sure the considerable financial opportunities available to the US Rugby Union helped to facilitate the All Blacks playing the USA in Chicago as the All Blacks make their way to Europe in October – could we not have had a similar match up against Australia in Vancouver as they make their way to Europe? I still hold to my point last week that Canada should be striving to play a country like Argentina once a year. I am still convinced that the story of Argentina has many lessons for Canada. Argentina ten years ago is where Canada is now and look how far the Pumas have come in ten years and the respect they are given by the big rugby nations of Europe and the Southern Hemisphere.

I am sure that in the professional era, it is all sponsors and bums on seats that decides who gets to play who, but surely Canada is enough of a pull to get at least one game against one of the Six Nations countries. It is my hope that Rugby Canada takes this on board and somehow ensures that at least in June next year, Canada gets to play one of the top ten nations both at home and away. Without this kind of exposure it is unlikely that we will cause any big upsets next year at the World Cup which is sad given the talent we have, and the recent spectacular Canadian performance and success at the Women’s World Cup. Rugby Canada has some serious homework to do between now and September 2015.

A Role Model for Canadian Rugby

After the excitement of the Womens’ World Cup and Canada’s outstanding effort, it has been a quiet week and not much to report. However after watching the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship, it left me with food for thought on how we might find a role model for Canada’s own development of its national side.

So let me throw this out there if Rugby Canada might read this. On watching Argentina’s performance in the Rugby Championship I would dare to suggest that this is a country that Canada could use as a role model in how to develop the national team into a top quality side capable of holding their own against the world’s best.

You may be surprised at this but let’s look at the similarities between the game in Argentina and Canada of which there are many.

In both countries rugby is a minority sport, which cannot hope to compete with the primary national sporting passions – in Argentina it is football and in Canada it is hockey. However, both countries are hugely patriotic and any sporting spectacle on the international stage which allows a Canadian or Argentinian jersey to be shown to the world automatically generates fierce and passionate interest across the country. In the case of rugby this is arguably stronger in Argentina but this is more due to the growing successes of the national team. Recall the giant screens in Buenos Aires that aired the Pumas semi-final match in the 2007 World Cup which saw them finish third in the tournament, and the resulting celebrations throughout the country on Argentina’s victory in the bronze medal match. I for one believe that if Canada ever reached a similar position at the World Cup the same interest and enthusiasm would be seen. Let’s face it, we are a nation of big people who love fast contact sports – we were custom built for rugby. There is no doubt that when played well at the International level rugby is a sport well suited to igniting national passions and huge interest. It is worth noting that the third most watched sporting event on television throughout the world, after the Olympics and the Football World Cup, is the Rugby World Cup – and the 2015 Championship looks set to continue this trend.

In both Argentina and Canada there is a very small domestic playing base and competition structure, centred on one or two key geographic areas. In Argentina it is the winelands and Buenos Aires whereas in Canada, British Columbia is undoubtedly the heartland of the sport. In Canada, the sport is an amateur code, which for the most part is also true in Argentina at the domestic level. The essential difference is that the Argentinian union has been highly effective in getting its players exposure to European top level clubs and helping them secure lucrative professional contracts overseas. In the last ten years all the top European professional clubs have at least two or three Argentinian players in their squads, often in their starting XVs on any match day. In the case of French rugby these percentages are even higher. The benefit of this regular exposure to top level rugby week in week out throughout the European season has been instrumental in contributing to Argentina’s continuous improvements as a national side. Argentina’s inclusion since 2012 in the Rugby Championship, the Southern Hemisphere’s premier annual international tournament has been a further boost to developing a national side that can compete with the world’s best.

The Argentinian Rugby Union has recognised that in order to capture the imagination of the public at home and generate a greater interest in the sport, developing a national squad that can gain international recognition and success is key. Although, national unions should always strive to develop the game domestically, you still need an attractive product and something that players can aspire to. As Argentina’s stature at the international level continues to increase so too will interest by professional European clubs in Argentinian players. This in turn will expand the domestic playing base and number of players available for local and club teams in Argentina as these players are attracted to the game and the possibility of gaining valuable and lucrative experience in Europe and the ultimate prize of representing Argentina at the international level.

Canada could do the same, as well as learning from Argentina’s experience and approach to the development of their national team. To further this process if time and funding permitted a regular annual international fixture between Argentina and Canada could be held. Although Canada participates in the annual Pacific Rim Competition the countries it plays against in this tournament are not quite of the same calibre as Argentina.

The fact that Argentina has managed to become such a success in international rugby is no small feat given its relative geographic isolation from the rest of the rugby world, its small domestic playing base and national obsession almost to the point of religious devotion with football. Canada is in a very similar position and could learn a great deal from the Argentinian experience, and ultimately replicate its success. It will take time and Argentina’s success has been 20 years in the making but the rewards and results are there for all of us to see. So from the Pampas to the Prairies let’s get to know our rugby that much better!

Rugby Championship 2014 – Round two

New Zealand vs Australia
Final score – NZ 51/Aus 20

By now most of us will have recovered our breath from what was an absolutely stunning All Black performance at the expense of the Wallabies. As I mentioned in last week’s edition, I felt that the All Blacks would be the more effective team in learning the lessons that needed to be learnt from the previous encounter in Sydney. I was not proved wrong. Whatever failings New Zealand may have had in Sydney, they were completely absent from the team’s display in Auckland. Australia on the other hand were poor and if anything regressed from their efforts in Sydney. In short they were annihilated by a dynamic All Black team who demonstrated their mastery of every aspect of the game.

There were some positives for Australia but they were few and far between. Michael Hooper’s individual try was inspirational even though it was more of a consolation than the impetus needed to spark Australia into life. Matt Toomua at 12 was also exciting to watch and could have done so much more had he had the support he needed from the rest of his teammates. Australia’s scrum also held up relatively well, though watching the Pumas’ utter dominance of the Springboks’ forward pack, Coach Ewen McKenzie must be feeling quite terrified at the prospect of his two encounters with the Pumas. It appears that McKenzie has perhaps realized the error of his ways by substituting Bernard Foley in for Kurtley Beale at fly half during the second half – a decision that should never have had to been made in the first place.

So where to begin with New Zealand and the master class display of the tournament so far? New Zealand answered every single question put to them by their critics last weekend and showed the world once again that they are still the benchmark team to beat. Although it was a complete team performance, there were so many players who had individual performances that deserve special mention. For me there were four displays that really stood out. Brodie Retallick at number 4 was the stuff of legends. The gigantic lock was utterly devastating and despite his size showed the pace and speed of a winger at times as he smashed through the Australian defences creating huge gaps and spaces for New Zealand’s backs. Aaron Smith the feisty scrum half was always right behind him making sure that the opportunities Retallick kept creating provided quick ball for New Zealand’s backline, causing Australia to look disorganised and frayed in their defence and constantly having to play catch up. In the lineout Retallick and Whitelock denied their Australian counterparts any decent ball, and these two skyscrapers made the lineout a weak option for Australia. Australia’s shouted lineout commands looked more like calls to avoid throwing the ball to Retallick or Whitelock rather than calls for plays from the coaching playbook.

At fly half, Aaron Cruden was probably the player of the weekend. With the exception of Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez, Cruden showed the other teams what they are lacking in this position. Going into this tournament there was much talk of New Zealand not having the legendary Dan Carter at Number 10 at least for the initial games. Aaron Cruden has proved that he is more than capable of stepping into Carter’s shoes and in many ways with each game is proving himself to be Carter’s equal. Cruden is intelligent enough to know that he perhaps does not have Carter’s kicking game, and also knows his opposition well enough to realize when to use the boot and when not to. Cruden plays his position differently to Dan Carter and relies more on his blistering pace and skill with ball in hand. Cruden consistently saw holes in Australia’s defence and was into them like a shot, which then released the rest of New Zealand’s backline who thrived on running the ball out wide. Indeed New Zealand’s ball handling and passing skills in Auckland this weekend were mesmerising to watch. Cruden’s kicking for goal was faultless and in that area he is comfortably Dan Carter’s equal if not better.

Julian Savea on the wing provided us with thrilling displays of his running skills and made several long deep cuts down the outside into Australian territory, ultimately resulting in one of the best tries of the game. Also impressive in defence, Savea showed his pace and why he is regarded as such a threat by opposition defences.

Lastly, although substituted midway through the second half, for the impressive Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett showed once more what depth New Zealand have especially at Number 10. Barrett, just like Cruden, covered huge areas of the park and was everywhere, and his try saving tackle on Israel Folau was undoubtedly one of the best plays of the match.

In short New Zealand were breathtaking. They are on a roll now and having put their opening jitters well and truly to rest, will only get better with each successive game. As a result I can’t help feeling that the tournament is already decided. New Zealand will take the spoils, and the Rugby Championship in terms of a competition will revert to its old Tri Nations format – the Tri this time being Argentina, Australia and South Africa with New Zealand simply using their games against these three countries as warmup matches for the World Cup next year.

As an aside to this match, French referee Romain Poite’s handling of the game should also be mentioned in honorable dispatches. There had been much controversy surrounding South African referee Jaco Peyper’s officiating of this fixture the week before. Romain Poite however was consistent and solid in his management of the game, allowing for a fast flowing and open game with minimal delays particularly around the scrums. He was fair and showed no favouritism and the yellow card that New Zealand’s Richie McCaw received was totally justifiable with even the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen supporting Poite’s decision in the post-game commentary. Poite was superb in explaining his calls to the players and this was reflected in a notable absence of backchat to the referee which we see sadly all too often after the referee’s whistle has blown.


Argentina vs South Africa
Final score – Arg 31/SA 33

The press correctly predicted an epic struggle and that is precisely what we got in this “scorcher in Salta”. This game was equally as exciting as the one in Auckland and I like many was gutted that Argentina could not ultimately walk away with the spoils. The Pumas’ bugbear of not being able to close out big games like this came back to haunt them in the last 15 minutes of a game that on paper they should have won.

Argentina for the first three quarters of the game completely outclassed the Springboks and provided us with an exciting, disciplined and highly focused demonstration of how to play rugby. The Pumas front three obliterated their South African counterparts at scrum time – South Africa simply had no answers. Nicolas Sanchez at fly half and the two scrum halves, Landajo and Cubelli were far superior to Ruan Pienaar and the woeful Handre Pollard and it was only with the long overdue calling up from the bench of Morne Steyn to the Number 10 position that South Africa finally started to front up to Argentina in this area. At centre Juan Hernandez once more showed his world class pedigree along with the always reliable Marcelo Bosch at the expense of South Africa’s Jean De Villiers and De Allende (De Allende was more like the invisible man for much of the match – Mr. Meyer please take note in future selections). Lastly although Habana and Hendricks did impress for South Africa and it was Hendricks try which ultimately swung the match back in the Springboks favour; Argentina’s back three were a revelation. Pablo Matero was fast and strong on the wing along with Amorosino and Tuculet at fullback was the player of the weekend in this position. South Africa’s fullback, the very impressive Willie le Roux had a good game but without the support of the rest of his pack, which Tuculet had in bucket loads he was just not as electric as his Argentinian counterpart and was left to scramble back in defence more than he obviously would have liked.

Despite Argentina’s stellar display of rugby, they once again couldn’t manage to keep it up for the full 80 minutes despite an impressive late surge in the dying minutes of the game. At the hour mark, the game looked sewn up for Argentina with a spread of more than ten points. However it was here as I have seen so often in the Pumas game, they perhaps become slightly relaxed and a five minute lapse in intensity and concentration allowed Cornal Hendricks to burst through and score out wide. There is no doubt that this was the turning point in the game. Some long overdue replacements off the bench by Meyer added new confidence and motivation to a brow beaten Springbok side. The always reliable Morne Steyn guided his troops back into finding the right spaces in a slightly tired looking Pumas defence. Argentina managed to regain their composure in the last few minutes of the game as they too were galvanised by a massive penalty kick from far out by Marcelo Bosch against the wind. The last two nail biting minutes saw Argentina once again regain momentum through their forwards but a momentary lapse in discipline close to the South African line saw the ball back in South African hands followed by the last blast of referee Steve Walsh’s whistle. The faces of the Pumas players said it all. So agonisingly close yet so painfully far. However, they can take heart in giving us a thrilling spectacle. If they can take the lessons to be learnt from these two games and hopefully not be too disheartened by the schooling they are likely to receive next from the All Blacks, I still believe that if they maintain their current momentum, a win either away or at home against Australia is still not beyond the realms of possibility.

As for South Africa, quite simply for the majority of the game they were poor, not helped by the fact that Argentina really were that good. Coach Heineke Meyer going up against Australia next has some SERIOUS work to do. This is not a world beating Springbok side and they are likely in for a massive thrashing both home and away to the All Blacks. They may fare better against the Wallabies but even there I am not holding my breath. At the moment South Africa lacks serious cohesion in their squad and are tending to look to players who I for one think are past their prime. The DuPlessis, De Villiers, Habanas, Bothas and Matfields are experienced players but far from the peak of their skill and fitness levels. The new crop of players that Meyer seems to be favouring have so far failed to impress me. Pollard at Fly Half simply is not suited to this kind of intensity of rugby. The supposed find of the year De Allende at centre was nowhere to be seen in Argentina; in total I think he carried the ball once. Even the potentially brilliant le Roux at fullback seems to be struggling to find his pace in a disjointed and at times dysfunctional side. The fact that Meyer did not start Morne Steyn at fly half in this game given what was at stake has left many South Africans scratching their heads in bewilderment. Meyer seemed to recognize the error of his ways in the last quarter of the game and his use of the bench reflected this as the substitutions he made changed the game completely. However we cannot help but wonder if these substitution players had started the game how much more different in character the game would have been.

I will grudgingly admit that the Springboks showed character in digging in and coming back from an almost hopeless position in the last quarter of the game. Ultimately they were the victors but far from convincingly. I hold to my opinion that Heineke Meyer is not the man to take them to the World Cup next year, but with a year to go it is too late to change the coach now. The Springboks and South African management as a result will have to work exceptionally hard over the next year to convince the rest of the world that this is a rugby nation that has lifted the Webb Ellis trophy twice and has the potential to do so again. Right now the jury is out.

In conclusion, South Africa bizarrely head into the next round of the competition with two wins to their belt and thus sit at the top of the table in the tournament, while Argentina sits at the bottom of the table despite having outplayed South Africa twice and having been much more impressive than third placed Australia – the vagaries of mathematics I guess. If South Africa has learned anything from the last two weeks, it is that they have found their “problem opponents”. The big three Southern Hemisphere nations each seem to have a team that they struggle with especially at the World Cup – for New Zealand it is France, for the Australians it seems to be Ireland and for South Africa we have seen in the last three years it is unquestionably Argentina, making these fixtures ones to always look forward to.

Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 – The final

Although the final of the Women’s Rugby World Cup didn’t quite produce the spectacle and sense of elation from a Canadian perspective that last weekend’s game did, a huge step forward was taken by a very courageous and talented Canadian women’s team at Sunday’s final.

England emerged victorious 21-9 and lifted the trophy but Canada was by no means a pushover.  England were devastatingly effective in denying Canada quick ball, knowing that if Canada’s backline were given room to run there would be no stopping them. Ultimately it comes down to planning and knowing your opponent and denying them their strengths. In this the English women’s team gave all of us a lesson in how to prepare for a World Cup final and come out the winners.

Canada can still feel proud of their second place finish and how they lit up the tournament at times with some breathtaking displays of rugby. This was recognised by Canada’s winger Magali Harvey being voted Women’s Player of the Year by the IRB, with Canada’s Captain Kelly Russell also getting favourable mention.

As Canadians we should all feel proud of the efforts of this remarkable and inspirational group of women, and I hope that the enthusiasm for the game of rugby in general that this tournament generated as well as interest in our Women’s and Men’s teams will only continue to grow and result in more success in the future.

Rugby Championship 2014 – opening rounds

Australia vs New Zealand:  Final Score – Aus 12/NZ 12

As mentioned above the weather dominated both initial rounds of the Rugby Championship this past weekend, and although conditions in Sydney were not as horrendous as in Pretoria, they nevertheless played a significant part in reducing the spectacle that so many felt this game had the potential to offer.  That the match ended in a draw and given the fact that Australia played a good second half in which they had the majority of possession, alarm bells will be ringing for Australian management despite the weather conditions. I was surprised to see how well the Australian forward pack, which has been a serious Achilles heel for them in the last few years, held up against a tried and tested All Black forward pack. It will certainly be something to build on for this weekend’s clash in Auckland, and provided they can sort out the halfback issues could make this Australian side one to be reckoned with. They certainly have youth and talent on their side and are growing in confidence and experience with every outing.

My scepticism over choosing Kurtley Beale at number 10 was not removed during the course of the game and I was amazed to see that the Wallabies management has kept him in this crucial position in what will be much more challenging game this weekend.

New Zealand on the other hand finally had their winning streak broken, but still remain undefeated in a record 18 matches. However, they hardly looked the finished product despite the weather. South African referee Jaco Peyper was criticised for some questionable blows of the whistle and I agree that this reflects his lack of experience at this level of intensity of Test Rugby. Nevertheless he was particularly vigilant around the areas where New Zealand likes to play the game to the limits of the law. The result was New Zealand gave away far more penalties than they usually get, especially when under pressure. Richie McCaw was notable in getting extra attention from the officials at the ruck and breakdowns. Although many in New Zealand felt this was unwarranted I felt it is long overdue and also exposed several weaknesses in the New Zealand game plan. As I said in last week’s issue, New Zealand are no longer the all-conquering side of last year, and put them under sustained pressure and they start to lack discipline and their decision making starts to weaken. The All Blacks side on display in Sydney was not the composed team of 2013 who were able to stay calm and keep their patience till the right opportunities became available. New Zealand’s defence under an increasingly relentless Australian attack started to look frayed and tired in the last twenty minutes of the game.

Still at the end of the day, Australia failed to finish off New Zealand and take the win and thus the All Blacks still remain the team to beat not just in this competition but on any stage in the global game. Australia will have to work on their finishing and the All Blacks at home will have to find that missing ingredient to reward the belief that a home crowd expects them to honor.

South Africa vs Argentina: Final score – SA 13/Arg 6

In a game marred by apocalyptic weather of biblical proportions which in turn made the pitch almost reminiscent of a water polo field than a rugby ground, South Africa received yet another wakeup call from a very impressive Argentinian side.  As mentioned above the weather was truly atrocious featuring hail and a downpour that forced many of the determined spectators looking for the nearest ark and all but the most hardy to eventually leave the stands and seek shelter. Despite this we witnessed a thrilling encounter at times and one which although the Springboks won, I would argue showcased the talent and skills of the Pumas much more.

South Africa struggled at times and I for one do not accept that it was down to the weather messing up their plans. If that is the case then they might as well not bother showing up for games this November in Europe and ultimately the World Cup in England next year. Argentina created far more opportunities than the Springboks and if it were not for conditions making for near impossible ball handling at times, the score line would very much have been in the Pumas favour. Nicolas Sanchez at Number 10 was simply outstanding and showed the other three teams what they were lacking in this crucial halfback position – the man was quite simply everywhere on the pitch and making excellent decisions to boot.  The Argentinian forward pack completely outplayed their South African counterparts and despite the conditions managed unlike the Springboks to consistently maintain their footing and overpower the vaunted front row of the Boks. Sorry Heineke Meyer there is no excuse for that especially given the depth of experience in South Africa’s front three. Argentina showed their ability to adapt to the atrocious conditions whereas South Africa looked frustrated throughout the entire 80 minutes and looked surprised every time they kicked away possession to the hungry Argentinian backs who consistently punched huge holes in the South African defence despite the slippery surface.

South Africa have huge experience in their squad and should have been able to mold their game plan to the situation they were faced with. Yes there were brief flashes of brilliance, the one try that was scored through the increasingly impressive Cornal Hendricks linking up with Ruan Pienaar, showed their pedigree and ultimately clinched the game, but for the rest of the game it was sadly absent.

In contrast it was the Pumas who were the exciting and inspirational team to watch – which to be honest they so often are even if this is not translated into a winning record.

In short, an uninspiring South African victory set against an impressive Argentinian display which will only add enormous confidence and motivation to the Pumas when they take on the Springboks in much more favourable conditions in Argentina in front of a passionate and vocal home crowd.

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Australia – Auckland

This hopefully will be the cracker everyone predicted last weekend, provided the weather holds which in New Zealand at this time of the year is never a certainty. However if we do get a dry ground, then this will probably be one of if not THE game of the tournament.

After last weekend both teams have everything to prove. For the All Blacks in front of a home crowd it is proof that last weekend was a mere hiccough, while for Australia it is that the All Blacks are vulnerable and Australia is on the rise at the expense of their Tasman Strait rivals.

As mentioned in the analysis of the game, I am amazed that the Wallaby coaching staff have chosen to stick with Kurtley Beale at Number 10, instead of the much more reliable Bernard Foley. The All Blacks will be missing Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu and no doubt this will have an influence, however there is still so much depth in New Zealand’s reserves, Australia are unlikely to take comfort from this. Although many are predicting a narrow Australian win for the first time at Eden Park for a very long time, I still think at home the All Blacks will ultimately come out on top and be slightly better and more clinical in learning the lessons both teams needed to learn after this weekend.

Argentina vs South Africa – Salta

I can’t help feeling that this fixture is of equal stature and significance to the one taking place in Auckland this weekend and also offers potential excitement by the bucket load.  We have a Springbok team that has everything to prove to their critics and a Pumas side that is brimming with confidence and the motivation to give their passionate supporters something to cheer

With a dry and fast ground for running rugby and two teams with strong running backlines this could be a potentially thrilling encounter. South Africa will have to find a way of countering last weekend’s dominance of forward play by the Argentinians as well as being much quicker at the breakdown. These were two areas that Argentina were exemplary in last weekend and even with the inclusion of Juan Smith in the Springbok forward pack this weekend, I still see Argentina overpowering South Africa in this area. In addition I think Argentina still boasts on the basis of form a stronger halfback pairing than South Africa, especially given Nicolas Sanchez’s current form. The one area where South Africa can outpace the Pumas is in the backs. Although I was not overly impressed with newcomer De Allende for South Africa, De Villiers, Habana, Hendricks and Le Roux are electric. Argentina has fast and talented backs but overall they lack the experience and game vision of South Africa’s backs. They will be competitive no doubt about it, but given the right ball South Africa’s backline should have the edge. That however all depends on South Africa’s forwards and halfbacks being able to deliver it and you can be sure that Argentina will be very effective in denying them this.

Therefore I think, although both of this weekend’s games will be hard to call, this one in particular is a conundrum. I am going to stick my neck out and say that Argentina might just take this one. If South African coach Heineke Meyer loses his cool under the significant pressure the Pumas are going to put on his charges, then it is possible that we will start to see panic in the Boks decision making. Once that happens they are ripe for the taking and this Pumas side are beyond eager to prove to the world that they deserve their place in rugby’s top echelons.

Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014

A HUGE congratulations to Canada’s Women’s Rugby team on beating the French in Paris in front of a very vocal French crowd and qualifying for the final against England on Saturday. The Men’s team should take note. Canada were electric against the French and this is one very talented, highly disciplined and motivated group.

England however will be hard to beat, but Canada have the advantage of already having played them and holding them to an impressive draw in the pool stages. If Canada stay focused and keep their discipline and grind England down at the breakdown then it is highly probable that they could walk away with the spoils, especially if the ball lands in the hands of their turbocharged back three.

Having watched some of Canada’s games in the Women’s World Cup, I would like to salute the Women’s team on being a great advertisement for the game in this country. Canada plays a very fast and expansive game and some of their performances in the tournament have been quite breathtaking.

This is exciting rugby to watch and one can only hope it serves to showpiece the exciting potential of the game in Canada. I am also delighted to see that the final is getting full prime time coverage on television on TSN2. So make sure you take time to cheer on our ladies on Sunday!

Rugby Championship 2014 – let the games begin!

Australia vs New Zealand – Sydney

There is no doubt that this is the game of the weekend. After a dismal season last year that only got better at the last gasp on their European tour, Australia are finally, under coach Ewen McKenzie, starting to look like a serious contender for the Webb Ellis trophy next year in England. There is often talk of a side starting to click at just the right time leading into the World Cup. In Australia’s case this definitely seems to be true. With Australian sides doing exceptionally well in this year’s Super Rugby competition, and a clinical demolition of a disorganised, fractious and weary French side in June, the omens look good for Australia. With Australia boasting one of the quickest and most exciting backlines out there at the moment, if New Zealand give away possession they could potentially pay dearly for it.

However it’s not all roses for Australia, as the one problem they are faced with is the continuing lack of a dominant forward pack to liberate their backline geniuses. It seemed that this problem had been addressed through the talent available in the recent Super Rugby competition. However the brutal and gruelling nature of this competition has left too many injuries for Australia to really be able to take on New Zealand and South Africa up front, and therefore the Australian scrum goes into the competition slightly untested and looking rather vulnerable. If Australia cannot compete up front against New Zealand then their woes will only get worse when they come to face the powerhouse forward packs of South Africa and Argentina.

Lastly the decision to play Kurtley Beale at fly-half is another one of those coaching decisions that we see so often in Test Rugby that seems to defy logic. Given Australia’s weakness up front, the number Ten position will be key in covering for the lack of ability in the forwards and linking it to the obvious strengths in the backs. In watching Kurtley Beale since the last World Cup, I am sorry he is simply not consistent enough particularly in the kicking aspect of his game especially when under pressure from an aggressive forward opposition.

New Zealand are no longer the invincible juggernaut they were last year. Sure they are still holding the world record for being unbeaten, but have had far too many narrow escapes (i.e. by 2 or 3 points) in their recent outings and who can forget that epic game against Ireland last November in which the Men in Green came closest to derailing the All Black express. However, New Zealand despite some chinks in their armor are still the ultimate finishers in the world game. Richie McCaw whether you like him or not is still intensely annoying but devastatingly effective especially if the referee’s attentions are elsewhere.

However McCaw is getting towards the end of his inspirational career and it remains to be seen whether this bedrock of the All Black side can be replaced effectively before the World Cup. Rugby is a game of fifteen men and there is little room for individual superstars as there is in football but there is no doubt that some individual players provide a degree of motivation and inspiration to their teammates that is hard to replace – talk to any Irish fan on how they are going to deal without an O’Driscoll on the field and you will understand.

New Zealand unlike Australia are blessed with such depth in their talent pool that unlike Australia the loss of players like Dan Carter is really a non-event. New Zealand have an incredible backline, strong centres and a set of halfbacks the envy of the world. Link that to a forward pack boasting the likes of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Owen Franks, and if I was Australian I would be feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

In conclusion, if Australia can overcome their question marks up front, rely on Beale to make the right decisions and release their backline and hang on to possession, in front of a vocal home crowd this could be their game. However there are slightly too many questions to be asked of them at this stage and therefore I still can’t help feeling that New Zealand will take the spoils on Saturday albeit after one hell of a struggle. Hang on to your seats folks it’s going to be a cracker!!

South Africa vs Argentina – Pretoria

While I think that South Africa will comfortably take this game, it will not be without a struggle at times and certainly not along the runaway score lines of this fixture in last year’s competition. I also think that of the two games this weekend it is the most interesting prospect in terms of who’s who in the Rugby world order.

South Africa have a potentially brilliant squad and one that could easily bring home the Webb Ellis trophy next year. I for one don’t believe that the dismal performance of South African teams in this year’s Super Rugby competition will have much if any bearing on the Springboks performance in the Rugby Championship. The provincial and national sides are two very different beasts. I am still sceptical that Heineke Meyer despite his impressive track record with the Bulls is the right man for the coaching job at the Boks. He tends to let his emotions get away with him resulting in almost panicked decisions on the playing field which at this level of rugby can be a recipe for disaster. Note the facial expressions in the coaching boxes of New Zealand and South Africa and it is small coincidence who has the better track record. Meyer is also guilty of often sticking with what he knows and players he likes rather than players on form. Having said that, his current selection for Saturday’s game with Argentina debunks this slightly as there are several names that many outsiders will not be that familiar with.

If South Africa kick away good possession through their inexperienced fly half then Argentina will punish them, especially as the Pumas front pack is strong enough to take South Africa on at their own game of the rolling maul. I am particularly concerned that the bench fly half is Francois Hougaard, who in my mind is an exceptionally overrated player and has not shown that he can cope when fast and calm decision making is required especially in terms of to kick or not to kick. South Africa have a good blend of experience and youth in their forward pack, who given the right decisions from the scrum and fly halves will release a devastating backline. There is no question that Willie le Roux is one of if not

THE most exciting players in Test Rugby right now. I have also been seriously impressed with Cornal Hendricks and coupled with Brian Habana this is the backline of a fantasy league first XV. If the untried De Allende can live up to his potential and a brilliant but slightly war weary Jean de Villiers can remain injury free then the Springboks could tear apart the Pumas defences. The question marks for South Africa in this game will come around the 9 and 10 positions and Meyer’s use of the bench.

As for Argentina, this is very much a mystery side under new coach Daniel Hourcade. Hourcade’s work with Argentina’s junior side has been exemplary but he remains unproven at this level. Argentina are very much a side in development, but blessed with potentially enormous talent. I am always surprised at the media and public’s willingness to write off Argentina’s chances. Lest we forget that Argentina finished the 2007 World Cup in third place. Argentina’s problems centre around their inability since 2007 to finish off big games. There is no doubt they have the passion, motivation and skill to do so, it’s just can they keep it up for 80 minutes?

Argentina has some excellent young players coming through the ranks and the exposure of key players to this tournament and playing at top level clubs in Europe, is continuing to strengthen the Pumas chances at big tournaments like the Rugby Championship. With many of their top players rested for the June internationals against Ireland, a crop of exciting new players were given an ability to show off their skills, and at times an Argentinian B side gave an Irish A side some serious discomfort. Put that experience together with a group of skilled veterans and throw in a dash of heartfelt passion, motivation and hunger for Argentina’s first win in this tournament and the Pumas will be no pushover over the next two months.

As for Argentina’s chances in Pretoria at Loftus which is one of the cathedrals of the world game, I fear it will be too much for them to pull off a win. However it will give them an excellent chance to settle as a side and given a strong backline and a powerful and aggressive forward pack, the Springboks could well have their work cut out for them the following week as they face the Pumas in front of a very vocal home crowd.

So yes, South Africa will win on Saturday, but may well pick up some irreparable injuries in the process of what promises to be a bruising encounter. Argentina will learn a great deal on Saturday and I am convinced they will get stronger and stronger throughout the course of this tournament and one of the big scalps is there for the taking. While the game may ultimately end in a rather one-sided naturein favour of the Springboks, from an analytical point of view this could be a fascinating encounter and leave us all with much food for thought.