After a fortnight’s break, the Rugby Championship returns to our screens this week with matches from Perth between Australia and South Africa and the New Zealand All Blacks hosting the Pumas from Argentina in windy Wellington.
Round 3 kicks off with the All Blacks v Pumas fixture from Wellington on Saturday afternoon. The All Blacks come into this fixture having dominated the Wallabies in the first two rounds of this competition whilst the Pumas will be buoyed by their draw against the Springboks at home in Round 2.
The Pumas have made two changes to their side from Round 2 with fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez and openside flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon returning to the team. Whilst it is obvious that the Pumas will play physical and direct style of play, one thing that is clear from last week’s performance is that they struggle to convert opportunities into points. Their style of play is focused on gaining field position through the set pieces and then rely upon their opponent’s ill discipline to lead to scoring opportunities.
The All Blacks have made multiple changes to the side that defeated the Wallabies 22-0 at Eden Park for this fixture with Julian Savea starting on the wing and Brodie Retallick starting in the second row. Additionally, Tony Woodcock and Conrad Smith return to the side and Victor Vito replaces the, seemingly desperately, unlucky Liam Messam at blindside flanker. The biggest change for the All Blacks though is the loss of Dan Carter to a training injury which sees his “apprentice”, Aaron Cruden, start.
Despite this plethora of changes, the All Blacks are the best side in the world of rugby by a long way at the moment and will again look to the starve their opponents of ball whilst unleashing their speedy back three from set plays to secure points.
New Zealand teams historically struggle to defeat the men from Argentina and this battle will again be a hard fought encounter. Make no mistake, the Pumas will present a strong challenge in this fixture and in defence and at set play time the sides are fairly evenly matched. I expect this to be a close game in the first half with the All Blacks to run away with it in the second stanza as the Pumas tire and the All Blacks’ class comes through. All Blacks by 19.
The second fixture of the round says the presently much maligned Wallabies host the men from South Africa in Perth at Patersons Stadium. The no 2 ranking in world rugby is on the line this fixture and that will be motivation enough for both teams to lift after very disappointing performances two weekend’s ago.
The Springboks have made a number of changes to the team that disappointed against the Pumas and have overhauled the back of the scrum with a view to, seemingly, dominating the Wallabies at the break down and in the set pieces. With this focus in mind Andries Bekker and Jacques Potgieter have been dropped with Juandre Kruger and Duane Vermeulen coming into the team. The Springboks have also looked to improve their stuttering attack and selected experienced halfback Ruan Pienaar to the starting line up and have dropped Mvovo for Francois Hougaard.
The Springboks are expected to play 10 man rugby in this fixture in the hope of stifling the Wallabies and by the look of their pack will be focused on physically challenging the Wallabies at every opportunity. Again it looks like the boot of Morne Steyn will be vital to the Springboks chances and one really can not see him being off form two weeks in a row so the Wallabies will need to be wary of any ill-discipline in their own half.
The Wallabies were thrashed by the All Blacks a fortnight ago and were flattered by the scoreline in both test matches they have played to date in the Rugby Championship. Robbie Deans, possibly facing a match to save his job at the helm of the Wallabies, has again made significant changes to the line up that played in Auckland. Kurtley Beale returns to the team at fullback with Adam Ashley Cooper replacing Rob Horne at inside centre. Dom Shipperley replaces the injured Drew Mitchell on the wing while Scott Higginbotham has been dropped to the bench with Radicke Samo taking his place on the bench. Mike Harris has also made his way onto the bench for this fixture.
The immediate reaction to this line-up is that it presents as a much more balanced team in attack than that selected for the first two games. That being the case, it would be hoped by many that the Wallabies jettison their approach of kicking the ball at every opportunity and keep the ball in hand more. Equally, it is vital that the Wallabies win the physical battle against this very large South African line up. All in all a large approval across all aspects of the game will be need by the Wallabies to avoid being ensconced at the bottom of the table after three rounds.
This will be another brutal encounter and it is worth noting that whilst the Wallabies have a recent rich vein of form against the Springboks at home, games in Perth historically have fallen the way of the Springboks.
The result of this game is likely to come down to whether the Wallabies misfiring attack can reserve the form of previous weeks and fire on all cylinders. If it does they should score enough points to defeat the 10 man attack of the Springboks.
I am tipping the Wallabies return to form after their terrible last two weeks and win this game in a close encounter. Wallabies by 7.