The Springboks will aim to make the most of their final Test on South African soil before the World Cup when they welcome Los Pumas to Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
It’s set to be a super Saturday of international rugby with as many as five fascinating Tests matches to be contested, from Auckland in the South to Nice in the North. The weekend marks another important stop on the road to next month’s World Cup, with teams testing their depth and fine-tuning their game plans ahead of the global showpiece in Japan.
It’s not all ‘friendlies’ as the action kicks off with the blockbuster Bledisloe Cup decider at Eden Park. Wales then welcome England to the Principality Stadium before the Boks take to the field for their ‘Farewell’ Test. The evening encounters see Italy and Russia collide and France and Scotland square off.
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The pick of the weekend’s Test matches, this will be a physically intense battle with the Bledisloe Cup hanging in the balance. The Wallabies’ famous 47-26 win over their arch-rivals in Perth last weekend has allowed them to claim the coveted silverware for the first time since 2002.
Even though Australia were in the ascendency before Scott Barrett receiving his marching orders just before half-time, the All Blacks lock’s red card did put an asterisk next to the Aussies’ win. As a result, both teams will be looking to prove a point in this high-stakes showdown.
After underperforming and finishing in an unfamiliar third place in the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks have lost their aura of invincibility at the worst possible time. An emphatic victory here will go a long way in restoring that fear factor.
Having relinquished the Rugby Championship crown, the All Blacks will be damned if they are to lose another treasured trophy. They’ll be fired-up and haven’t lost to their old foe at Eden Park since 1986, so expect them to turn the tables on the Wallabies.
Wales will want to bounce back from last weekend’s 33-19 loss to the English, which not only snapped their record 14-match winning streak but also ended their short-lived unofficial reign as the world’s top-ranked team. It was an uncharacteristic effort from the Welsh; they were never in the game, trailing 14-0 early on and 24-7 early in the second half.
The fighting spirit they showed to close the gap to five before England pulled clear again would’ve been of little comfort to Warren Gatland, who demands more from his charges. It was a particularly worrying result for the Welsh considering the bulk of the matchday 23 had won the Six Nations Grand Slam earlier this year, while Eddie Jones fielded an experimental side.
Wales haven’t won at the home of English rugby since the 2015 World Cup, so how much of the heavy defeat can be put down to the Twickenham factor? With the added pride of playing at home, and vengeance to be had, I expect this return tie to more closely resemble the two teams’ last clash in Cardiff back in February, when Wales prevailed 21-13.
With the serious Rugby Championship business out of the way, two overhauled outfits will take to the field at Loftus. The standalone Test is all about allowing fringe players to stake a final claim for places in the respective World Cup squads while giving first-choice players a well-earned rest.
Regardless of the mass changes, the Boks have a great deal of momentum on their side after securing their maiden Rugby Championship crown, and that will carry over into this ‘rematch’. For their part, Argentina will aim to redeem themselves after the stinging 46-13 loss to the South Africans in Salta, and will be desperate for a positive result in Pretoria following a winless Rugby Championship campaign.
It might be a scrappy affair with new combinations across the board, but the enthusiasm of the players fighting for World Cup spots should offset that and may lead to some scintillating individual performances. The Boks have superior depth and home ground advantage, so I can’t see the Pumas causing an upset.
General anticipation for this clash at the Stadio Riviera delle Palme isn’t exactly at the same level as for the four other fixtures on the day, but staunch South African supporters will likely tune in considering Italy are one of the Boks’ World Cup
Pool B assignments.
The Azzurri started well against Ireland in Dublin last weekend. They drew first blood and would’ve been pleased with their performance in the first 15 minutes before the hosts found their rhythm and ultimately ran out 29-10 victors. This is an opportunity for Italy to gain some winning momentum and they’ll do just that against a game but weaker Russian side.
Scotland enter this encounter one place ahead of the hosts on the world rankings in seventh, and the high of their stunning comeback last time out against England, when they fought back from 31-0 down to draw 38-all in the Six Nations finale at Twickenham, will still be fresh in the Scots’ minds.
Gregor Townsend, however, has curiously left out star halfback duo Craig Laidlaw and Finn Russell for this clash at Allianz Riviera, which gives Les Bleus more than just home ground adventure. France had a slightly better Six Nations than the Scots, finishing one spot above them in fourth, and won their head-to-head battle 27-10. You’d have to think the French will get the job done again.