After a short break, the Rugby Championship returns to action this week with the Wallabies travelling to Loftus Versfeld to take on the Springboks and the Pumas hosting the All Blacks at La Plata.
The break between rounds has been filled with controversy for Australian fans that has all been generated from the twitter account of Quade Cooper. The less said about that issue the better given that the drama seems to have abated and there is now rugby to watch again. In other news, the move by Richie McCaw to announce he is taking a rest next season has left the McCaw fanatics bereft and weeping.
Game 1: South Africa v Australia in Pretoria
Altitude has never been kind to the Wallabies and their record at Loftus Versfeld reflects this having never won there. Unfortunately I do not think this game will lead to a change in that record.
Frankly both teams have been in disarray during the course of this competition and Heyneke Meyer and Robbie Deans both desperately need a win. Meyer has rung the changes from the line-up defeated by the All Blacks in Dunedin with the biggest casualty the home town hero Morne Steyn who has been dropped in favour of Johan Goosen from the Cheetahs after an indifferent performance with the boot. Frans Steyn is struggling with an injury and it is expected that Jaco Taute will come into the side at outside centre with Jean de Villiers moving to inside centre. The other change sees Eben Etzebeth return from suspension. In addition to these changes to the starting line-up there are four new faces on the bench for Springboks.
The game plan for the Springboks has been limited and focused on seeking field position and penalties through the boot of Morne Steyn and frankly it has not worked from them so far with their only success being a victory against the Pumas in the first game of the competition. They have been strong in defence generally and have held their own in the forwards but they just have not been able to score enough points. Until the 10 man rugby plan of Coach Meyer is jettisoned they will continue to struggle with point scoring. That said, if there was ever anywhere a field possession game plan could work for the Springboks it will be in the rare air in Pretoria.
The Wallabies have had changes to their line-up again forced upon them with injuries to Quade Cooper and Stephen Moore seeing them out of the line up for the remainder of the Rugby Championship. The Wallabies are now onto their fifth captain in twelve months through injury and also remain without James O’Connor. It appears likely that Kurtley Beale will be the new number 10 for the Wallabies albeit as at the time of writing the Wallabies line up has not yet been named.
Whilst the Wallabies have been hammered by injuries to key players the fact remains that the execution by the Wallabies as well as their play at the set pieces has been generally woeful so far this season. The focus tactically for the Wallabies seems to have been also on playing a field position game however just about every kicking duel they have entered into has seen a net loss for them regardless of the opposition. Reliance again on a field position game will not bode well for the Wallabies as one does not see them winning a kicking duel with the Springboks. Discipline in their own half will also be a key for the Wallabies.
The Wallabies have won the last five games against the Springboks which is a record albeit each of these fixtures have been close run affairs and, indeed, have won the last two match ups held in South Africa. Despite the Springboks sitting below the Wallabies on the table at present, their performance against the All Blacks last time out was far superior to the form the Wallabies have shown against the same opposition. The Wallabies defeat of the Pumas should not mask just how poor the Wallabies were in that game and whilst I expect some improvement from them I think the Springboks are simply in better form at the moment and in front of their home crowd I am tipping them to win this fixture in a close game. Springboks by 5.
Game: Pumas v All Blacks at La Plata
The All Blacks continue to dominate this competition however despite this coach Steve Hansen has again made key positional changes for this round’s fixture. Not surprisingly Dan Carter has been installed back into the line- up at the expense of the suddenly out of sorts Aaron Cruden. Seemingly expecting a physical encounter in the forwards, the All Blacks selectors have opted for the pairs of Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick at lock with Sam Whitelock returning the warming the bench for this fixture. The unluckiest man in world rugby at the moment might just be Liam Messam who, despite recently excellent form is again on the bench with Victor Vito getting the start on the blindside flank.
Whilst the All Blacks do remain undefeated their run of matches at home in the last two rounds have presented performances that have been somewhat below their usual standard with the Puma pushing them all the way in round 3 and the Springboks failing to get over the line in Dunedin only because the collective radars of their goal kickers were awry. The return of Dan Carter is a big one for them and one expects he will provide a calming influence in the All Blacks star studded backline that has been sorely missing in recent weeks.
For the Argentinians coach Santiago Phelan has named the same starting side as that which narrowly lost to the Wallabies on the Gold Coast a fortnight ago. This is a side playing with passion and poise for the most part in their games but again were found wanting in the last twenty minutes against the Wallabies to let them back into the game.
In this fixture, the Pumas will be looking to defeat the All Blacks for the first time in their history and will need to play a full 80 minutes with the same passion and poise coupled with their commitment in defence to challenge the best team in the world.
The Pumas at home is probably the new toughest test in southern hemisphere rugby for visiting teams and again the All Blacks can expect to face a hostile environment in La Plata. Whilst I expect the Argentinians to lift in front of this most parochial of home crowds, I equally do not expect the All Blacks to under-estimate the Pumas here, as evidence by the return of that man Carter. Whilst this will be a close fixture I cannot see the Puma’s breaking their duck against the All Blacks here and am tipping the All Blacks to win by 13. All Blacks by 13.