How time flies when you are having fun: this week, seemingly as soon as it started, the Rugby Championship comes to an end which fixtures in Argentina and South Africa to round out the competition. We already have a winner of the competition with the dominant All Blacks wrapping up the title last week against the Pumas so the bulk of the interest in this round will be around whether the slumping Wallabies can rest their drop down the rankings with a make shift line-up.
Game One: South Africa v New Zealand at FNB Stadium Soweto
The fact that this match is now effectively a dead rubber will do nothing to dampen the passion of the combatants in this fixture. On the line for the All Blacks is an unbeaten record in the tournament as well as a 16th win in the row which will put them within reach of the world record for victories in a row in international rugby (17 games presently held the All Blacks and Springboks).
The line-up for the All Blacks is yet to be named and will be interesting to see whether they will field their strongest line-up or line-up with some of their key men rotated out to gain a rest. I would be surprised if they did not run out with their top team behind Richie McCaw because it is simply not the All Blacks style to take any test match likely.
Last week’s victory in Argentina was close to a complete performance by the All Blacks inasmuch as they dominated the play and were outstanding in all aspects. Putting 54 points on the here thereto defensively impressive Pumas was nothing short of excellent with the return of Dan Carter reviving a backline that was previously sputtering with Aaron Cruden in the number 10 jersey.
They are the best team in the world and have lifted to a new level since the World Cup to completely dominate this tournament. Whilst they have not been overwhelmingly dominate in the forwards, they possess one of the slickest backlines we have seen in world rugby and got to a point last week where they seemingly were able to cross the try line at will. If they get good service from their forward pack, the All Blacks will again be very very difficult to stop in this fixture. One question mark that remains is whether they will be a bit jetlagged off the back of their significant travel demands over the last couple of weeks and a little bit jaded having already won the tournament.
As for South Africa, having seemingly completely changed their game plan against the Wallabies last week to secure a five-tries-to-one victory at altitude at Loftus Versfeld, they will be looking to end their tournament with a win against the best team in the world who bested them in Dunedin in their last meeting
It will be interesting to see whether the Springboks return to their previously rigid, robotic, kick-obsessed game plan against the world champions or proceed with the more free flowing and spontaneous game plan that served them so well against the Wallabies. It strikes me that the Springboks might be a bit gun shy of taking a similarly open approach given how desirous of counter attacking the All Blacks are.
That said they definitely have the pack, as they proved in Dunedin, to match the New Zealanders both for physicality and quality ball. One big question mark will be whether the new flyhalf in Johan Goosen will suffer from “second game syndrome” having been excellent last week against the Wallabies.
This is a fixture between the best team in the world and a team that is very difficult to best at home. For the Springboks to win they will have to be perfect in executing their “new” game plan whilst for the All Blacks, business as usual should see them triumphant. I am leaning toward the All Blacks on the basis of how impressive they have been to date and because of the nagging concern I have about whether Goosen can repeat his performance from last week. All Blacks by 8.
Game 2: Argentina v Australia in Rosario
Here is a list of names worth remembering as you watch this game: Sekope Kepu, Stephen Moore, Dan Palmer, James Horwill, Scott Higginbotham, Ben McCalman, David Pocock, Wycliff Palu, Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Drew Mitchell, Berrick Barnes, Rob Horne, James O’Connor, Adam Ashley-Cooper. Cooper Vuna, Joseph Tomane and Nic White. All are injured and all would have, likely, played a role in this test match had they been fit.
The simple fact is that the Wallabies have been decimated by injuries, so much so that only the side that will run out on Sunday morning Australian time is basically unrecognizable compared to the one that kicked off the season against Scotland in monsoonal conditions in Newcastle in May.
They come into this fixture off the back of another demoralising performance, this time against the Springboks where they leaked 5 tries and where lucky not to leak some more. Yes the team is in an injury crisis but it also must be remembered that the Wallabies have been far from in optimal form all season.
In what ended up being an ugly outing for the Wallabies last week a shining light was the performance of Kurtley Beale who stepped into the breach at fly half admirably. Coming into this fixture he will again need to be at the peak of his form here. The forwards for the Wallabies will need to lift their intensity and go forward at the breakdown to challenge what has been a very impressive Pumas forward pack to date.
The Pumas have developed as a team throughout the last six weeks and have moved from playing a distinctly defensive game to last week being more prepared to spread the ball around and attack the line of their All Black opponents. The score line last week belied the performance of the Pumas who tested the All Blacks at times. It should not be forgotten just how good the All Blacks are at the moment.
Their forward pack has held its own against each of the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks forward packs with their prop Roncero seemingly a medical marvel who just keeps rolling forward. In the backs they possess a mix of experience and youthful flair that is finding its feet in this tournament and can be dangerous when they deign to through the ball around.
The Argentinians have shown that they can mix it with the best of teams on their day and on the Gold Coast their game plan against the Wallabies was close to perfect until they ran out of puff with 15 minutes to go. If they perform to that level for a full 80 minutes in front of their home fans they will be very tough to beat.
This is a tough game to tip for me: the heart is saying the Wallabies but everything else is coming out with a Puma’s victory to make the infamy of the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship campaign complete. That being the case I will tip to readers the Pumas in this game and fear that it will not be a small score. Pumas by 12.