The Rugby Championship resumes after a weekend’s break with Nelson and Brisbane playing host to back-to-back games on Saturday.
At a sold-out Trafalgar Park, the All Blacks and Pumas do battle. Immediately after that match, attention shifts to Suncorp Stadium where the under-fire Wallabies host the Springboks.
Read on for a complete preview of the weekend’s games.
New Zealand vs. Argentina, Trafalgar Park, Nelson, 5.35pm (AEST) Saturday
After two crushing victories over the Wallabies, the All Blacks have changed pace a little in heading to Nelson at the top of the South Island for the visit of Argentina. Coach Steve Hansen could scarcely have been happier with his troops’ Bledisloe Cup showings, as they punished the Wallabies’ mistakes with ruthless effect and played the kind of brilliant rugby that generates such headlines as “Just give us the Cup now” as was written in the New Zealand Herald in reference to next year’s World Cup. That may be a tad premature given the tournament’s format, and it’s certainly a storyline that Hansen hasn’t bought into; a fact seen in the sweeping changes he has made this week. A desire to test the All Blacks’ depth means the in-form Richie Mo’unga starts at No. 10, among seven total changes. The Crusaders playmaker will generate the majority of the interest, though, albeit after Beauden Barrett’s spectacular discussion-silencing performances from Sydney and Auckland.
Mario Ledesma has a touch of the magic dust, doesn’t he? After guiding the Jaguares to a maiden Super Rugby playoffs appearance, the former Test front-rower has already stamped his mark on the Pumas at international level. Having succeeded Daniel Hourcade after the South Americans were beaten at home by both Wales and Scotland, Ledesma went 1-1 against the Springboks. While they were unable to match the Boks’ power in Durban, the Pumas produced arguably the best performance of their Rugby Championship tenure in recording a 32-19 victory in Mendoza. That triumph was built on an eight-minute, three-try spell that featured some blistering attacking rugby. They will, of course, need to produce something of similar quality for an extended period of time on Saturday; last year in New Plymouth, the Pumas were level at 22-apiece with 25 minutes to play, they were eventually beaten 39-22. As the Wallabies were reminded late last month, it’s no good fronting up for 40-60 minutes against the world champions.
How the All Blacks win it
Having stung the Wallabies on the counterattack in their twin Bledisloe Cup encounters, the All Blacks will again back themselves to defend long Pumas’ attacking sequences and await the right moment to pounce. But it should be expected they be a little more organised in general play under Mo’unga’s control; the Crusaders No. 10 is a more traditional style of fly-half and exhibits a stronger kicking game than Barrett, if not the same jaw-dropping moments of individual brilliance. Hansen will be looking for a little more accuracy in execution from his troops, and a greater presence through the middle of the paddock in the face of a rejuvenated Pumas pack. Look for Scott Barrett to inject himself alongside Brodie Retallick, while the never-say-die ball-running of Ardie Savea will also create a strong forward platform. From that, the All Blacks will look to attack Nicolas Sanchez’s channel with both Ngani Laumape and Jack Goodhue.
How the Pumas win it
With a draw being their best result from 26 appearances, and the All Blacks’ red-hot form, it’s easy to see why Argentina are $15 outsiders with bookmakers tab.com.au. Still, there is no doubting their upside under Ledesma; they look genuinely capable of pushing the All Blacks into the second half. The best strategy the Pumas can adopt is to slow the game as much as possible, while not leaving themselves open to turnover opportunities in the process. Should they build extended phase sequences in the same mould as the Wallabies, it may be in the Pumas’ interest to kick possession away before they over-commit and leave themselves short on numbers wider out. Of course that strategy requires an astute kicking game and the chase to match, as Ben Smith, who returns to fullback this week, will easily pick off any fractured defensive lines. Frustrate New Zealand and grab absolutely every try-scoring opportunity that falls their way; that is the only way Argentina can hope to create history this weekend.
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Waisake Naholo, Richie Mo’unga, TJ Perenara, Kieran Read (captain), Ardie Savea, Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Tim Perry, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Sam Whitelock, Luke Whitelock, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown.
Argentina: Emiliano Boffelli, Bautista Delguy, Matias Moroni, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Ramiro Moyano, Nicolas Sanchez, Martin Landajo, Javier Ortega Desio, Marcos Kremer, Tomas Lezana, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Agustin Creevy (captain), Santiago Garcia Botta.
Replacements: Julian Montoya, Juan Pablo Zeiss, Gaston Cortes, Matias Alemanno, Pablo Matera, Tomas Cubelli, Bautista Ezcurra, Juan Cruz Mallia.
Positional battle to watch
Richie Mo’unga vs. Nicolas Sanchez
With one Test as a replacement behind him, Mo’unga’s opportunity finally arrives just a few hours north of where he has been destroying Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup sides for the past few seasons. The Canterbury and Crusaders fly-half would likely be starting at No. 10 in every other rugby-playing country, Ireland aside, but he looks set to be Barrett’s understudy through to the World Cup and beyond. But there is no denying his quality and all-round skill-set as a playmaker; he also possesses a wonderful ability to accelerate through a gap and create for those around him. Mo’unga may not have the same international experience as Sanchez, but we should expect the 25-year-old to feel right at home in Nelson.
At the opposite end of the career spectrum is Sanchez, who laces up for yet another Test against the All Blacks. But unlike in previous years, the veteran Pumas playmaker enters the Trafalgar Park encounter on the back of one of the best performances of his career. At home against the Springboks, Sanchez ran up a full house of scoring plays in a try, three conversions, a penalty and a drop goal. Working off the back of an inspired performance from the Pumas forwards, Sanchez was able to release the backline and bring the vocal home crowd to life. He’s unlikely to get similar freedom on Saturday, though, and it’s under concentrated defensive pressure that his game is known to fall apart.
New Zealand will win this and should do so comfortably, but the 27.5-point start that’s available looks like a decent option for Argentina. They can test New Zealand but the All Blacks will again power away in the final 15 minutes as they have in recent games against the Pumas. New Zealand by 23.
Israel Folau is still on the mend from his injury and is 50/50 if he’ll be right for the game against the Springboks.
Australia vs. South Africa, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, 8.05pm (AEST) Sunday
The Rugby Championship is essentially over for the Wallabies after two successive defeats by the All Blacks, while the Springboks, on current form, will need divine intervention to even earn a losing bonus point against the mighty New Zealand. So, essentially, Australia and South Africa are playing for second place, at best, and, more importantly, using their matches to try to fine-tune for the next year’s Rugby World Cup and figure out a way of preventing the All Blacks from lifting the William Webb-Ellis trophy for the fourth time in their history.
The Wallabies and the Springboks head into Saturday’s encounter in Brisbane on the back of heavy defeats by the All Blacks and Argentina, respectively. They produced displays suggesting they are still far behind the brilliant New Zealanders. For starters, both Australia and South Africa need to find an extra gear — maybe even two — and then be perfect in everything that they do on the rugby field. That quest starts on Saturday, and the team that gets close to perfection should also win the match.
How the Wallabies win it
The Wallabies need to target the Springboks’ breakdown and get in their faces. Argentina did it successfully in Mendoza, where they really disrupted the Boks, before taking their chances on attack. It’s easier said than done, but if the Wallabies can get good, front-foot ball they must attack the Boks’ backs in the wide channels, where South Africa have been vulnerable on defence. The Wallabies also have to Test the Boks’ back three with plenty of high kicks.
How the Springboks win it
The Springboks need to target the Wallabies’ scrum, which has been quite shaky in the first couple of rounds of the Rugby Championship. A dominant scrum could earn the Boks penalties, which in turn will help them get field position and points-scoring opportunities. The Springboks goal-kickers, however, will have to ensure they build that scoreboard pressure after two rather forgettable kicking performances by Handré Pollard against Argentina. The Boks also need to be a lot more clinical on attack after missing a plethora of try-scoring chances in Durban and Mendoza.
Australia: Israel Folau, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge, Matt Toomua, Marika Koroibete, Kurtley Beale, Will Genia, David Pocock, Michael Hooper (captain), Lukhan Tui, Adam Coleman, Rory Arnold, Allan Alaalatoa, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Scott Sio.
Replacements: Folau Faingaa, Tom Robertson, Taniela Tupou, Izack Rodda, Ned Hanigan, Joe Powell, Bernard Foley, Jack Maddocks.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Makazole Mapimpi, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Elton Jantjies, Faf de Klerk, Warren Whiteley, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (capt), Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Tendai Mtawarira, Wilco Louw, RG Snyman, Francois Louw, Embrose Papier, Handre Pollard, Cheslin Kolbe.
Positional battle to watch
Kurley Beale vs. Elton Jantjies
Beale is the Wallabies’ go-to man — there is no doubt about it; he is the team’s playmaker, and most of their moves go through him. He has wonderful skills and great vision, but also possesses great running attributes. Beale is deceptively quick and has a great step to get past defenders. It will be interesting to see how he will adapt his game in the fly-half position.
For the Boks, the door is open for Jantjies to really stake a claim for the No. 10 jersey after Pollard’s average displays against Argentina in the first two Rugby Championship matches. With Damian Willemse waiting in the wings, Jantjies needs to show he can dictate matters from the fly-half position at this level. Like Beale, Jantjies is a wonderful attacking player. But his abilities have never been in question. It’s his temperament that comes under scrutiny.
The Wallabies will struggle initially to cope with the Springboks’ fire in the forward exchanges. However, they will get more than enough ball for their classy backs to take their chances and put the Boks away. Wallabies by 8.