Posts Tagged ‘The Rugby Championship’

Test Rugby is finally back after far too long and what a treat we were given as Australia and New Zealand provided us with a thrilling albeit rain soaked encounter in Wellington’s “cake tin”. After being less than slightly inspired by Super Rugby Australia, we were riveted by a Wallaby team that turned up in New Zealand wanting to play, and what’s more play with style. In short what a difference a Coach makes. Unlike the Michael Cheika era, this looked like a cohesive bunch of enthusiastic and talented players who had a pretty good idea of what they were trying to achieve despite the elements and the best efforts of the All Blacks. The proof of the pudding will be at Eden Park this weekend, but for Australian supporters it must have been truly refreshing, and for the rest of us made Australia/New Zealand contests worth watching again!

The long awaited conclusion to the 2019/20 Champions Cup season finally takes place this Saturday as England’s favorite upstart team Exeter have their first shot at lifting the Heineken Cup. Meanwhile France’s Racing 92 make their way to their third final, hoping that “third time’s a charm” really does ring true for them this weekend.

Today we learnt that South Africa will NOT be participating in this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship. It didn’t exactly come as a surprise but is still regrettable, especially as many of the reasons being cited for it, could also apply to Argentina who still are participating in the tournament. However, we don’t think as some are surmising that it is a further sign that South Africa may be moving North of the Equator to the Six Nations, even if its provincial sides are now joining European competitions instead of Super Rugby.

So with lots to talk about, here are our thoughts on a weekend you are not going to want to miss!

Heineken Cup Final – Racing 92 vs Exeter – Saturday, October 17th – Ashton Gate – Bristol

The weekend kicks off in style with a Heineken Cup final – what more could you ask for? This one should be a cracker. Two very inventive sides meet in Bristol for what should be a highly entertaining match, with plenty of flair from both sides. Two Scottish legends face off against each other in Racing 92’s Finn Russell and Exeter’s Stuart Hogg. The Championship’s top try scorer Exeter’s Sam Simmonds will be on hand to weave his own magic tied to some impressive brute force. England fans will be looking to see Exeter centre Henry Slade continue his run of form, while Racing’s back line has the potential to score tries from anywhere in the park, especially once centre Virimi Vakatawa develops a head of steam.

Racing 92 have been here before but somehow have yet to lift any silverware. Exeter on the other hand are the new kids on the block. Dominating the English Premiership in the last few years, the team’s meteoric rise through the ranks has been impressive to watch. Coupled to some big name signings, this is now a team to be reckoned with and then some. Despite Racing’s lack of success at the Heineken Cup’s final hurdle, they must surely arrive full of confidence after their demolition of a very gritty Saracens side. Will the experience of being at the Heineken’s big show favor Racing or will mavericks Exeter continue to turn heads as they have done all season, and currently remain the only undefeated team in the Championship.

We think up front Exeter should be able to boss the Frenchmen around, though Racing’s Hooker Camille Chat caused all sorts of problems for Saracens in the semi-finals. However, Exeter just looks the more complete unit from 1-8, with better control in the set pieces. With the likes of Jonny Gray and Sam Simmonds in the mix, Racing will really need to keep their composure in the discipline stakes on Saturday.

However, we can’t help feeling that what will really set these two teams apart is the half back combinations, and here we are handing the ball back to Racing. At 9 and 10, Racing have so much pace and imagination in Teddy Iribaren and Finn Russell that they are likely to keep Exeter guessing all afternoon and deny them the kind of platform where the English side’s mastery of the set pieces could prove vital. Racing should be able to force Exeter to constantly have to reset their defensive structures, if Russell and Iribaren are allowed space in which to operate. Given the fact that both have an eye for even the slightest of gaps, Exeter will need to be sharp in covering these two mischief makers on Saturday.

We’d argue the back lines are evenly matched. Whatever Exeter’s Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade can do, well Racing’s Vakatawa, Imhoff and Zebo can do too. Nowell and Hogg may be quicker out of the blocks than their French counterparts, but once either Imhoff or Vakatawa have built up a head of steam they are almost impossible to stop, especially the French Fijian who has the potential to carve off huge chunks of Exeter’s midfield defence. If Exeter don’t dominate possession and the set pieces which we’d argue they are well placed to do, then this could end up being a very free flowing game but our money is on the Frenchmen causing the most damage allied to their pair of tricksters in the halfback department.

Two very exciting and evenly matched teams should make for a highly entertaining final on Saturday, and hopefully not the kind of slugfest that finals can often degenerate into. The weather looks set to favor a running game, and the teams boast a host of characters able to provide just that. Impossible to call, but somehow we feel that Racing 92 might just find that at long last – third time around really is lucky!

Bledisloe Cup 2 – New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, October 17th – Eden Park – Auckland

What a truly remarkable game of Test Rugby last weekend, capped off by an epic final seven minutes! If you’re like us, we were so thrilled that the return of International Test Rugby provided us with such a memorable match.

First off though I think it’s fair to say we owe Australia an apology. We had in many ways written them off before the opening whistle, but they arrived in Wellington determined to play, and one could argue that in many ways they were the better team on Saturday. If Rieko Ioane’s blatant foot in touch in the opening stanzas of New Zealand’s first try had been caught by Australian referee Angus Gardner, then Australia would be travelling to Eden Park tomorrow with a few fingertips already resting lightly on the treasured Trans Tasman Cup.

What really struck us though was what a difference a Coach makes. We make no apologies for harboring a distinct dislike of former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika whose Trumpesque style of coaching Australia clearly wrought havoc on their fortunes in the Test arena. New Coach New Zealander Dave Rennie, so far seems to be a breath of fresh air. Australia finally looked like they had a game plan, an idea as to how to execute it and a team working as one – qualities which were blatantly absent during the Cheika years. We have been rather puzzled by Australia’s decline, and although we perhaps have not been too flattering about the Wallabies exploits on the field in the last few years, we genuinely miss the class Wallaby sides of the 90s. Let’s face it John Eales still has cult status here at the Lineout as one of the finest the game has ever seen. Consequently, we really liked what we saw last Saturday, and some of Australia’s inventiveness and speed with ball in hand was a joy to watch and long overdue.

However, one swallow doesn’t make a summer as the saying goes. Both sides were clearly rusty and the All Blacks got off to their traditionally slow start, but in terms of both teams fielding new Coaches, you’d have to favor Rennie over the All Blacks Ian Foster. Admittedly anyone would look good after Cheika, but former All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen leaves behind a legacy that many doubt Foster will be able to uphold. Nevertheless, the All Blacks are rarely poor twice and never at Eden Park the site of tomorrow’s encounter.

The weather will be a lot more favorable tomorrow than it was in Wellington and New Zealand are likely to look a lot sharper than they did last weekend. They got bossed around by Australia in the set pieces except at lineout time, where they failed to assert their traditional dominance, had far less possession than Australia and their backs rarely looked assured – and don’t even get us started on Rieko Ioane’s ridiculous showboating which ultimately sees him relegated to the bench for tomorrow’s match. In short, it was a stodgy All Blacks performance, and when was the last time you’ve heard a New Zealand effort described in those terms?

This week though sees the return of key playmaker Beauden Barrett to the fullback position after Damian McKenzie ran around a lot last weekend but actually achieved very little. Rieko Ioane sits this one out on the bench, but to be honest we are not sure he is centre material and it will be interesting to see if, when he does come on, he replaces the out of position Jordie Barrett on the right wing. We are pleased to see Anton Liennert-Brown get a start at center as in our opinion he has been one of New Zealand’s most consistently under rated talents of the last five years. All that aside though New Zealand really need to lead from the front, and the only person who really put in a consistent and admirable showing last weekend was flanker and Captain Sam Cane. Everyone else had flashes of brilliance but the end result was still a disjointed and at times lackluster display. Even New Zealand’s one man version of Hurricane Irma, Ardie Savea, was struggling to make the headlines last weekend.

Australia ring a few changes, and we have to be honest and say that the choice of Ned Hanigan for Pete Samu who did seem to be a weak link in an otherwise impressive Wallaby back row last weekend, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, with Michael Hooper at his absolute best last weekend on the occassion of his 100th cap and Harry Wilson being the Wallaby find of the year, then all is not lost though expect to see New Zealand’s Ardie Savea take it up a few notches this weekend.

Nic White had a blinder of a game last weekend at scrum half for Australia, and fly half James O’Connor has finally come of age. Between the two of them they often made their All Black counterparts Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith look irrelevant, despite Smith’s try.

New Zealand’s back line was rarely to be seen last weekend, and centre Jack Goodhue’s new haircut made him almost anonymous, perhaps he needed that mullet after all to be effective? Australia on the other hand were electric in this part of the park. The two wingers newcomer Filipo Daugunu and traditional big gun Marika Koroibete were a nightmare for the Kiwi defences, while the centre pairing of Matt Toomua and Hunter Paisami looked solid. Tom Banks may pale into insignificance against the legendary Beauden Barrett this weekend, but there is definitely some potential in the Wallaby youngster at fullback.

Despite a rather off color performance from New Zealand last weekend, it’s hard to see them coming short two weeks in a row and at the hallowed ground of Eden Park to boot. In short the All Blacks just don’t lose there, and haven’t since 1994 when France managed to catch them off guard. Australia on the other hand haven’t won there in 33 years – 1986 to be precise. This is not a poor All Black team, and let’s face it, one awash with talent. Saturday’s lineup is the kind of fantasy draw for most Coaches. Consequently, Australia need to take the game they played last Saturday and up it by at least another five gears. As impressed as we were by their initial outing last weekend, we sadly fear that a harsh dose of reality is in store for Rennie and his Wallaby charges this Saturday.

Last but not least a special shout out has to go to Reece Hodge for providing the spark for the most remarkable seven minutes of Test rugby we’ve seen in a long time. If ever a rugby player’s facial expressions summed up Australian attitude then Reece Hodge gets the Oscar. The Australian utility back’s boot is the stuff of legend, but that final kick at goal last Saturday in appalling conditions was a tall order and then some. But there’s Hodge who steps up and clearly is thinking “well mate it’s a bit of a long shot, but what the hell let’s have a go!” And what a go he had! The agonizingly near miss off the posts and the resulting seven minutes of frantic rugby it set in motion for both sides will stay in the memory banks for years to come. So in short, well done Reece and any chance of the same again this weekend?

And then there were three – The Rugby Championship

We can’t say we were completely surprised, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t take the news of South Africa’s withdrawal from this year’s Rugby Championship as a crushing disappointment. Knowing the turmoil, both economic and social that is going on in South Africa at the moment, with COVID-19 as a catalyst, it is probably the right and judicious thing to do, but a Rugby Championship without the Springboks just isn’t the same. Now it’s just the Bledisloe Cup with Argentina on tour in Australia. You could argue that Argentina’s players are facing the same conundrum as South Africa’s squad in terms of game time and exposure to top level rugby, so all the more credit to the South Americans for taking the bold decision to participate. As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge Pumas fans and are really looking forward to seeing them in action again this fall, even if they may not be playing on a level playing field with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts who will be well and truly battle hardened by the time of the Pumas first match with the All Blacks on November 14th.

As for talk of this being the first step in the Springboks ultimate departure from the Rugby Championship in favor of the Six Nations, we think that is simply hot air. Annual fixtures between South Africa and New Zealand are one of the pillars of the global Test calendar, eagerly anticipated and watched by rugby fans around the world. The draw of such matches and the revenue generated is simply too strong to forfeit. South African Super Rugby sides may well now gravitate to European competitions, but South African and New Zealand fans, as well as many neutrals, still regard fixtures between the Springboks and All Blacks as key indicators of who’s who in rugby’s global pecking order. Fans in both countries ultimately judge where their teams are at on the basis of such encounters. In short, we may not get to see it this year, but expect to see South Africa back with a vengeance for the 2021 Rugby Championship unless the Six Nations governing bodies are willing to bankroll the costs of Springbok rugby from now till the next World Cup – which we somewhat doubt.

So everyone have an absolutely outstanding rugby day tomorrow, details on how to watch are all over on the TV listings page. Once again a big shout out to everyone who wrote in to TSN and DAZN last week to remind them that there are a few rather important events happening over the next few weekends in relation to the oval ball. If our so called leading sports networks want to call themselves broadcasters of top flight international sporting competitions (Korean domestic baseball aside) then they have a bit of work to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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