Posts Tagged ‘All Blacks’

With the Rugby Championship done and dusted, there is plenty to talk about in relation to Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as they head North of the Equator in one of the most keenly anticipated November Test windows in years.

This year’s Rugby Championship was one of the best we can remember for a long time, and although New Zealand once again came out on top they were made to work exceptionally hard for it by South Africa. The resurgence in South African rugby was there for all to see despite them lacking the focus they needed at times. Argentina proved that they are dangerous once more and are showing signs of peaking at just the right time for the World Cup next year. Australia meanwhile appeared to lurch from one crisis to another, and narrowly avoided the wooden spoon in a comeback for the ages in their final match in Argentina.

Much was learnt by all four sides in the course of the tournament, but here’s what got us talking as we looked back on a riveting competition.

New Zealand may have misfired on occasion but they are still the team to beat!

Sure New Zealand suffered their first loss in the Rugby Championship in a very long time and at home to boot. They were clearly put under pressure by the Springboks in Wellington and it was something they are simply just not used to. The same happened in the reverse fixture in Pretoria, and even Argentina gave them some serious grief in Nelson at times. However, before everyone starts getting carried away with saying that the All Blacks are vulnerable, take a look at those three matches in a bit more detail. In the case of the Pumas game, New Zealand as they always do soon exerted a stranglehold on the match in the second half. In both Springbok Tests, the All Blacks were made to chase the game, something they have never had to do since that encounter with Ireland two years ago in Chicago. However, in both games against the Springboks the winning margin was a mere two points. The All Blacks struck back hard in the second half of the two games against the Springboks and narrowed the gap. In Wellington they came short as they simply couldn’t crack a super human Springbok defence, but in Pretoria they had done their homework and found the key.

Bottom line – put them under pressure and you can beat them on the day, however the phenomenon of two All Black losses in a row still looks the stuff of fantasy for their opponents. The ability of this team to learn from their mistakes and regroup, coupled to a seemingly bottomless pit of talent in terms of depth, is something to be feared. Consequently, we very much doubt they will be knocked off their perch at the top of the World Rugby rankings this November. Someone may trip them up next month, and the most likely candidate would appear to be Ireland, but it is still a very tall order indeed.

Argentina may well be the surprise package of November

We could easily see the Pumas getting two wins this November and even giving Ireland some serious food for thought. The Pumas were outstanding for the most part in the Rugby Championship and will be more than a match for Ireland, France and Scotland. They ironically seem to play better on the road than they do at home. Ireland is probably a bridge too far for them, but Scotland and France must surely be targets well within their reach. Their only real concern heading into next month is a faltering scrum but even that was beginning to show signs of life again come the end of the tournament. However, they need fly half Nicolas Sanchez to be at his absolute best for all three games, as he is absolutely vital to how well the Pumas play. As we saw in the final Rugby Championship game against Australia, take him off the field and Argentina lose a lot of the shape that had everyone talking this summer. Argentina have the talent to fix their set piece issues, particularly at scrum time, but the lack of depth at fly half is a concern. However, their back row and back three are truly world-class!

Australia would appear to be the new France?

Australia have a relatively easy schedule ahead of them next month compared to their usual November fare. There is the small matter of Bledisloe 3 to contend with in Japan this Saturday, but we doubt it is likely to produce the kind of turnaround in Wallaby fortunes that the same encounter did last year. Firstly it is away from home, and Australia have not fared well on the road in the last few years. Secondly, a very vocal and excited Japanese crowd are likely to swing behind the favorites New Zealand.

However, here’s the rub as we witnessed against Argentina in the final match of the Rugby Championship – two different Australian teams showed up in that game. The first half team were appalling and looked like rank amateurs. Their grilling by Coach Michael Cheika in the changing rooms at half time is already a YouTube sensation.

What that rant did do though was produce a completely different team in the second half, one that actually looked like a Wallaby side of old. While we don’t think for a second that Australia’s fundamental problems, of which there would appear to be many, were fixed in the final forty minutes of Australia’s Rugby Championship campaign, it was clear that there is enough talent in the team to make life difficult for their November opponents. Whether or not it will take similar tactics in the dressing room by Coach Michael Cheika to get results remains to be seen. However, the question is clearly there, much like French teams of old, which Australian team will now show up on any given Saturday next month?

How much will the Springboks miss Faf de Klerk next month?

As we saw in the Rugby Championship, South Africa are once more back on the world stage and a force to be feared. Their historic win in Wellington against the All Blacks is already the stuff of legends, and served to make one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries one of the highlights of the Test calendar each year – no matter who you support. The fact that this rivalry had become rather one-sided in recent years towards a group of individuals in black shirts, had meant that Test rugby had lost one if its greatest annual spectacles. Not so this year, as we were treated to two epic encounters that showcased the best in terms of the skill and physicality that these two sides bring to such contests.

South Africa put in some great performances, but at the same time they will rue their losses away to Argentina and Australia. We are not convinced despite the win in Wellington that they have managed to exorcise their away from home demon. Furthermore, scrum half Faf de Klerk was a key component of that historic win in New Zealand. So far we have yet to see a suitable understudy, and the Springboks will be without his services for the entire November Test window. South Africa have a very good team, but much like Argentina at fly half they need some genuine depth in the scrum half position, something we are not sure they have. They will be exceptionally competitive next month, make no mistake and if they are able to fill the void de Klerk leaves then we could see them taking home four wins on the road to cap a remarkable year. We wait and see with bated breath, making South Africa the hardest team to bet on next month.

Australia vs New Zealand in Japan – a dress rehearsal for next year’s semi-final?

Depending on how the pools play out, and the quarter-finals there is a chance that these two may be meeting in Japan again next year in a semi-final. Either way, whatever happens this Saturday, the two teams will have jumped the gun on the rest of the tournament’s competitors on what it feels like to play to a capacity crowd in the host country for next year’s global showdown. Australia clearly have more to gain from the exercise than New Zealand, as a win on Saturday would give them huge confidence going into a November series that will need to pay dividends for them if they are to put some gloss on what has been a truly dismal year. New Zealand have the Bledisloe Cup sewn up, but a match against their trans-Tasman rivals is never taken lightly and the desire to make it three from three will mean they are likely to take no prisoners. At the same time they will want to lay down a statement to the Japanese public that once Japan’s tournament ends, most likely in the pool or quarter-final stages at best, they are the team for the host nation to get behind. It may be a dead rubber in terms of silverware, but it is likely to have plenty of intensity as a showpiece teaser for next year’s World Cup.

Endnote

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

The stakes are for high this final weekend of the Rugby Championship, with Australia staring down the barrel of an unprecedented finish at the bottom of the table as the key talking point. On the flip side of the coin Argentina are looking to seal their best ever Championship with a third win as they take on the Wallabies in Salta. However, the headline event is the showdown between South Africa and New Zealand in Pretoria with the All Blacks looking to take revenge after their shock defeat to the Springboks in Wellington last month. If you were of the betting persuasion you would no doubt be approaching this weekend’s fixtures with more than just a little trepidation as all four sides have EVERYTHING to play for.

New Zealand face their third game on the road this Championship with the satisfaction of a solid win over Argentina last weekend. South Africa meanwhile will relish the opportunity of seeking to make it two from two against the All Blacks in the thin air of the high veld in Pretoria. They weren’t quite at their best last weekend against a poor Australian side despite ultimately getting a comfortable win, and will know that they will need to ratch it up another few gears if they are to take the fight to New Zealand and come out on top a second time. Both sides are packing some bruising physicality and expect this match to be a punishing war of attrition.

Argentina know they need to up the ante after a fairly dismal performance against New Zealand last weekend. Their set pieces were poor and their general execution was not at the standard that has made everyone sit up and take notice so far in this year’s Championship. As they once more field their strongest team, one would have to argue that they will be very hard to beat in Salta and are unlikely to be as out of sorts as they were last weekend. As we have noted before they traditionally seem to fade out in these last two matches at home, making them that anomaly in world rugby – a team that tends to play better on the road than they do at home. Australia meanwhile know they have to win this match, and that they will face a very frosty return to the land down under should things not go their way on Saturday. Calls are already out for Coach Michael Cheika to start looking for alternative employment, but we still side with those who feel such calls are premature. Nevertheless, there is no denying that Australia are simply not firing as a unit and we will be fascinated to see if they find that missing chemistry on Saturday.

So here are the five key points for each match that we’ve been kicking around.

South Africa vs New Zealand
Saturday, October 6th
Pretoria

It would seem that Springbok/All Black clashes have once more become the stuff of legend after South Africa’s epic win over New Zealand last month. It was a well deserved victory and one which caught us totally by surprise. On this occasion you would think that home ground, much as it did last year in Cape Town, should provide another classic spectacle of Test rugby. Consequently, the anticipation and buzz around this game is akin to a World Cup final, as two of International Rugby’s greatest rivals prepare to battle it out.

Both teams are fielding power house sides, though there are still enough variables in both that we couldn’t help questioning some of the calls. New Zealand in our opinion still possess the greater strike threat, and much as it was in Wellington, South Africa will have to trust that their defensive abilities can once more measure up to the test. The battle of two bruising forward packs though is likely to result in the bench replacements coming on sooner rather than later. Brace yourselves – the impact of some of these collisions may be enough to shatter your TV screens.

How South Africa choose to manage their front row in terms of replacements will be key

We are delighted to see Steven “Ginger Ninja” Kitshoff get the starting berth at loosehead prop for this match. He is consistently one of our favourite Springbok players whose work rate is off the charts. It’s a testament to how good you are when your replacement is the legendary Tendai “the Beast” Mtawarira. Vincent Koch also needs no introduction off the bench at tighthead. In short, South Africa are packing a formidable starting and bench unit. Are Kitshoff and Marx going to be used to make the kind of impact at the start of the game that we usually see with Kitshoff off the bench? We’d argue yes, with Mtawarira and Koch to come in with some legendary defence when the game will really need to be tightened up in the final quarter. New Zealand have some fearsome talents of their own here, but if South Africa’s front row six really deliver on Saturday they could ultimately be the game changers many are predicting them to be.

Marx has to deliver at lineout time in one of the key battles on the field

Probably one of the most important aspects of Saturday’s match will be the lineout, and Marx simply can’t afford to have the kind of off day he has had at times in the Championship. He has two of the best lineout jumpers in the business as targets in the shape of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert up against an equally fearsome unit in the shape of New Zealand’s Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock. Marx will have to find his mark consistently, though he will take comfort in the fact that the towering figure of Pieter-Steph du Toit will also be a potential target. Lastly who is RG Snyman likely to replace when he comes off the bench? Definitely some fascinating contests here on Saturday.

Will that Springbok back row click and be good enough to contain New Zealand’s Shannon Frizell?

As we saw against Argentina, Frizell has X-factor written all over him for New Zealand and South Africa’s trio will really need to be sure of each other’s roles to contain him. Siya Kolisi needs to make the kind of metres that we know he is capable of from loose play while at the same time being a menace at the breakdown. Meanwhile Pieter-Steph du Toit and Francois Louw will have to match the physicality of Kieran Reid and Sam Cane, and once more produce the kind of defensive performance that was so key in Wellington. In short, South Africa will need to slow the ball down at the breakdown and really put Frizell under pressure.

Faf de Klerk needs to leave the kicking to Handre Pollard

Don’t get us wrong we think de Klerk is a FANTASTIC player, however, we have consistently been worried about some of his kicks in close play, as they have been rather risqué to say the least. He may be a great scrum half but when it comes to box kicking abilities, a Conor Murray of Ireland he is not. To that degree we can’t help feeling that up to now he has been rather lucky as his kicks have not cost South Africa. In a match that will be so keenly contested as this, then South Africa will want to hang onto possession rather than risk giving it away. Instead de Klerk should leave the kicking duties to Pollard who is likely to be in more space and have a better view of the options at hand.

Once again we have more questions than answers when it comes to the centres

OK we get it, we understand why Sonny Bill Williams is starting, as New Zealand will want the physicality he brings at centre for a match where bruising ball carriers will be at a premium. However, we can’t really understand why he is starting alongside Jack Goodhue. He is much more accustomed to playing alongside Ryan Crotty in an All Black jersey and for such a high stakes game we thought this would have been an obvious choice. Instead Crotty finds himself on the bench. Furthermore we are still not convinced by South Africa’s offering of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel even though these two performed so well in the match in Wellington. We would have preferred to see Andre Esterhuizen somewhere in the mix for South Africa but he doesn’t even make the bench. Damian Willemse is on the bench and is this the right time to put the promising youngster under the spotlights in such a high stakes match for South Africa? Like we say, way more questions than answers for both sides in this part of the park on Saturday, so we are really looking forward to seeing what lessons are learnt by both sides.

Verdict

After we got it so spectacularly wrong the last time these two sides met, you can perhaps understand the difficulty we are having in calling this one. The analogy we are using for this one is similar to Ireland’s two games against the All Blacks in 2016. Ireland beat New Zealand convincingly in Chicago, but then went on to lose to New Zealand at home in front of an expectant Dublin crowd. The lesson here? Nobody seems to be able to get back to back wins over the All Blacks even if they have the luxury of playing them at home. So on the basis of history, and the fact that this New Zealand side simply haven’t suffered two consecutive losses to the same side, for as long as we can remember in the recent past (well at least since 2011), we have to honor historical accuracy. As a result in one of the most eagerly anticipated clashes of the year, we are giving it to New Zealand by four points. For the sake of South African supporters who finally have something to get excited about, after a few lonely years in the wilderness, we hope we are proven wrong once again!

Argentina vs Australia
Saturday, October 6th
Salta

Australia head into this match with everything to prove, as a team of talented individuals which has consistently failed to deliver this Championship. Argentina meanwhile, despite faltering badly last weekend against New Zealand, will want to finish their campaign in style with back to back victories against Australia. Argentina are painfully aware that last weekend they were a shadow of the team that caused New Zealand such problems in Round 3. Argentina have proven that they can play as a team and produce spectacular results, while Australia have produced some moments of brilliance but they have been too few and far between, while at the same time they have rarely looked like a team who have studied the same playbooks prior to kickoff.

Argentina have kept it simple and as a result are playing much better rugby than they have for the last twelve months, as they have got the basics right and are not trying the kind of complicated and overly ambitious moves we saw so often in last year’s Rugby Championship. However, there are traditional strengths of their game that are creaking badly, most notably their scrum which was for the most part a shambles last weekend. Whether or not a week is sufficient time for Coach Mario Ledesma to fix some fundamental problems remains to be seen.

Australia on the other hand would appear to be trying to play the kind of over complicated rugby that failed so dismally for the Pumas last year. Their front five remains an area of serious concern and should Argentina have addressed their scrum problems this Saturday, then it is likely to be a long afternoon for the Wallabies in Salta. While Australia has a world-class back row contingent of David Pocock and Michael Hooper, the blindside flanker spot continues to be a weak link and up against a Pumas unit which is gelling exceptionally well indeed, it could mean that the whole forward platform for Australia could well continue to prove ineffective. Then there is the whole issue of the composition of the backs for the Wallabies but we’ll talk about that in a minute.

So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking in relation to this match.

A week is not a long time to fix Argentina’s scrum problems, but it still looks more settled than Australia’s

As mentioned above Argentina’s scrum has not been the much feared weapon it once was, and against New Zealand it was made to look decidedly second-rate. Still all was not lost as the return of Ramiro Herrera did bring some much-needed stability once more as on one or two occasions it actually held position as opposed to going backwards. However, as a former front rower himself, Coach Mario Ledesma knows that simply isn’t good enough if you are to seriously challenge the best in the world. Consequently, the best he can perhaps hope for in the space of a week, is that it simply becomes a stable platform on Saturday, as opposed to the devastating weapon it once was for the Pumas. A weapon it will become once more no doubt, but probably not this weekend. However, some much needed stability will at least give Argentina something to work with, especially as Australia don’t seem to be getting any traction here either.

They may have looked off the pace in Buenos Aires, but Argentina’s second row is to be feared

We have to confess to having been disappointed by Argentina’s performance here last weekend. However despite this, Guido Petti still managed to get honorable mention in the global rugby press. Consequently, although it wasn’t the unit that it could have been, it is still more than likely to cause a Wallaby outfit that is rather lacklustre to say the least all kinds of problems. To be honest, Australia’s second row, in their recent matchup on the Gold Coast, seemed capable of nothing more than attempting to niggle Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez in off ball moments by continuously ruffling his hair. We’d argue that Adam Coleman who returns for this match is better than that and will pose more of a threat, but Australia will really have to tidy up their game here if they are to be competitive with the Pumas duo in their own backyard.

Australian supporters can breathe a sigh of relief that the Kurtley Beale experiment is over

It just didn’t work, and it would seem that Coach Michael Cheika has realized that Beale is much more effective in the centre channels. Many people, ourselves included, suggested that Matt Toomua should have been starting at number 10, however Cheika has decided that it is time to resort to the tried and trusted figure of Bernard Foley, even though Toomua could fill in from the bench. In our opinion, Cheika is making the right call in doing so. Toomua will not be available to the Wallabies on a tough November tour of the Northern Hemisphere, and the role will be Foley’s. All the more reason to get Foley started once more in a tough encounter on the road as preparation for November.

Where was Nicolas Sanchez last weekend?

After being such a vital component of the Pumas renaissance under new Coach Mario Ledesma, we were really surprised to see him go missing in action against New Zealand last weekend. We are aware that the fly half is prone to the odd shocker and occasionally simply doesn’t show up. We hope that last weekend was his one wobble for the tournament and he will be back to his best this Saturday, even if the Australian second row focuses on rearranging his hair.

Moyano versus Folau – we can’t wait

We, like most Argentinian supporters, are delighted to see the return of Ramiro Moyano for the Pumas. We would have also liked to see Bautista Delguy back but will settle for Matias Moroni on the opposite wing. However, it’s Moyano up against Folau that could prove to be exceptionally rewarding for Argentina. We still hold that Folau is out of position on the wing, and in an already demoralised team, he is not the team player they need. Given Moyano’s ability to sidestep his way through defenders at will, Australia may once more pay dearly for having players out of position on Saturday. The only question remains to be seen how well Moyano stands up defensively if Foley starts peppering high balls down the right wing for Folau, as the Australian clearly has the height advantage. If this is Cheika’s tactic on Saturday and it pays off, then he will surely be given redemption but if it fails then he may well not be making the trip to Japan next year. However, it would be appear to be such an obvious tactic that it is highly unlikely that it will catch Argentina unawares, with the Pumas back row likely to give Foley very little opportunity to put it to use.

Verdict

We find it really hard to believe that Australia are going to walk away with only one win in this year’s Championship, but by the same token the omens are clearly pointing towards it. If Argentina play like they did when they hosted South Africa at the beginning of the tournament; with the spark they showed in New Zealand and the calm efficiency they showed in Australia last month – then this match is clearly theirs for the taking. We continue to hold that Australia have a great team that just needs to click and once it does they will be a force to reckon with come the World Cup. Their Rugby Championship may end up being a painful learning curve, but there is still more than enough talent in this Wallaby squad to get them back on track in time for next year’s global showdown. Much like the Pumas, the Wallabies tend to peak at just the right time for the World Cup – it would just seem that Argentina have jumped the gun on them this year. Consequently, due to morale probably being at an all time low in the Wallaby camp, as well as being a long way from home, we think that Saturday is just too much of an ask for them against a highly motivated and well-drilled Pumas outfit on home soil. As a result we are handing this to Argentina by four points!

Endnote

We included our good friends Steve and Gareth’s review of Round 5 from the 1014 on YouTube, so head on over to our TV listings page to catch it. Also this weekend they are doing a second screen commentary on the Springbok/All Black game with some big rugby personalities. So make sure you sync it up with your own broadcast of the game. What an epic group to have in your living room for the match!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia need to play as a team

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

South Africa will be exceptionally difficult to beat up front

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

The Wallaby fly half question

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

Have Australia learnt anything from Round 4?

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, September 29th
Buenos Aires

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

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

The fade factor

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

Who will kick for New Zealand?

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

The return of Sonny Bill Williams

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

The return of the Pumas scrum prowess

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

How much will Argentina miss Ramiro Moyano?

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

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

Verdict

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand vs South Africa
Saturday, September 15th
Wellington

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

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

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

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

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

Back row imbalance continues for South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Australia vs Argentina
Saturday, September 15th
Gold Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kurtley Beale experiment

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday, September 8th
Nelson

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

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

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

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

Richie Mo’unga finally gets the first dance!

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

The return of the pocket rocket!

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

The Matera factor

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, September 8th
Brisbane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This must surely be Elton Jantjies’ last chance saloon?

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

How much will Australia miss David Pocock?

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

South Africa has to click defensively at the back

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 25th
Auckland

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Pocock alone cannot rescue Australia

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

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

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

Can Australia really compete in the backs without Israel Folau?

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

Verdict

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

Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 25th
Mendoza

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

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

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

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

One of the best second row battles of the tournament

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

Expect the Pumas back row to really click this weekend

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

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

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

The Bautista Delguy breakout

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

Australia vs New Zealand
Saturday, August 18th
Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauden Barrett needs a BIG game.

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

Go wide and go left!

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

The Beale factor

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

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

The verdict

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

South Africa vs Argentina
Saturday, August 18th
Durban

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

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

Malcom Marx – Best Hooker in the World?

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

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

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

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

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

The Springbok fly half question

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Endnote

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