Another week and another interesting round of the Rugby Championship beckons. Last week saw the Wallabies open their account in this competition with a hard earned victory against the Springboks in Perth whilst the All Blacks defeated the Pumas in Wellington in a game in which the All Blacks could not have been happy with their performance.
This week the Springboks travel to Dunedin to face the All Blacks at Forsyth Barr Stadium and the Wallabies and Pumas face off in the first rugby test match to be played on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Game 1: All Blacks v Springboks, Forsyth Barr Stadium
Both coaches have made changes to their sides ahead of the All Blacks’ clash with South Africa in Dunedin on Saturday.
Dan Carter’s injury enforced absence has secured Aaron Cruden another start after his insipid performance last week against the Pumas. This week he will have a different halves partner with Piri Weepu replacing Aaron Smith at number 9 due to disciplinary reasons. In the pack, Sam Whitelock and Liam Messam return to the run-on side.
The All Blacks will be stung by criticism of their performance last week, which is not in any way meant to be derogatory about the performance of the Pumas, and will be looking to return to their previously dominant form from earlier fixtures against the Wallabies. They have class all over the park and particularly will be looking to use their speedy outside backs to pierce the Springboks defence. Equally, off the back of a fairly even forward battle with the Pumas last week, the All Blacks back row can be expected to seek to dominate their opponents to allow for more positive attacking opportunities and ultimately more points.
The Springboks have been outmatched in the back row contests in each fixture to date and again Heneke Meyer has made some changes to the starting pack with a view to adding more impact. The front row for the Springboks also has injury concerns and has been a surprise weakness for them to date.
The Springboks have, to date, focused on playing 10 man rugby and relied on a game plan that that revolves around kicking for territory and hoping that their opposition makes mistakes so that Morne Steyn can kick them to a victory. This is a strategy that did not work against a Wallabies team in patchy, at best, form last week however there has been no indication that a different strategy will be used by the Springboks in this fixture.
The All Blacks will have to be careful not to gift the Springboks too many scoring opportunities through penalties, particularly if they are overzealous at the breakdown. That said, if they manage this part of their game well and don’t give away a large penalty count, I do not believe the Springboks will have enough points in them to best the number one team in the world in this fixture particularly as they will be looking to rebound from their fairly poor display last week. I am tipping the All Blacks to remain undefeated and to win this game in a bit of a canter. All Blacks by 14
Game 2: Wallabies v Pumas, Skilled Park
In this preview last week, I commented that the Pumas would put in a good effort for the first 60 minutes against the All Blacks and then fall away in the sight of the finishing post and that was how that fixture ended up. The Pumas were very good against the All Blacks and played to their game plan very well. So well in fact that despite losing, the Pumas certainly would have taken more positives from the game than their vanquisher.
The Pumas have made two changes in the back line to the team that tested the All Blacks last week with scrum-half Nicolas Vergallo and full-back Martin Rodriguez dropped and replaced by Martin Landajo and Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino respectively. The forward pack that did so well last week remains unchanged and it will be through the forwards that the Pumas will be looking to test the Wallabies.
Such an emphasis on forward power and dominance at the break down is not without risk though and the Pumas have found themselves on the end of some heavy penalty counts so far this season. That will need to change against the Wallabies as will their propensity to fade out in the last 20 minutes of games.
Another week and another Wallabies line up loaded with changes, some forced by injury and some based on form. In the backs, Will Genia’s knee injury sees Nick Phipps take over at number 9 whilst Kurtley Beale’s ongoing struggles at fullback have seen Rob Horne rushed back from injury to play inside centre with Berrick Barnes moving to the custodian role. Kane Douglas makes his debut in the forward pack in place of the injured Sitakeli Timani. Former Gold Coast resident and Queensland Reds captain Nathan Sharpe takes the reins in his former home town.
I have been vocal on twitter about my views on the balance of this team and, whilst this is not the forum to vent those views again, a real concern I have is the lack of a bona fide goal kicking replacement for Berrick Barnes with Mike Harris not being selected on the bench. Barnes has struggled with cramp in just about every test match this season (including the June tests) and at the Gold Coast the humidity will again do him no favours.
Setting that concern to one side, the Wallabies thus far this season have been one dimensional in attack whilst being largely excellent in defence. As much as has been stated in the media this week that the Pumas are no longer the “surprise packets” they were at the start of this competition, if the Wallabies have not changed their game plans from previous weeks there will be no surprises at all for their opponents and this presents a danger for them going into this fixture. The selection of Pat McCabe will not assist in fostering an expansive style of play however if the Wallabies forwards set a solid foundation then hopefully Quade Cooper will be able to conjure some try scoring opportunities.
All things considered, I do not think the Pumas will break their Rugby Championship duck in this fixture and whilst they will be very competitive, particularly in the forwards, I again expect an evenly matched game at half time to be blown out at the end by the Wallabies. Wallabies by 11.