Rugby’s Southern Hemisphere powerhouses kick off their 2022 seasons in blockbuster battles against invaders from the North on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Springboks will be looking to lay down a marker in the opening encounter of their three-Test series against Wales in Pretoria, the All Blacks battle Ireland in Auckland and the Wallabies tackle England in Perth.
Bookending the day’s action is a clash between Japan and France in Toyota and a showdown between Argentina and Scotland in San Salvador de Jujuy.
Japan v France
Saturday, 2 July – 08:00
While it’s become part of the game to see foreign-born players represent their adopted nations in the Test arena, it’s sad to see what Japan’s become. They’re Brave Blossoms in name alone as no less than eight foreign-born players started in the 43-7 win over Uruguay at the weekend.
Six Nations winners France are using the two-Test series in the Land of the Rising Sun to blood new players. Even without the majority of their first-choice stars, including World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont and his halfback partner Romain Ntamack, Les Bleus will be far too good for the hosts.
New Zealand v Ireland
Saturday, 2 July 09:05
Revenge will be on the All Blacks’ minds for the 29-20 loss they suffered in Dublin last November. The famous win, which was more emphatic than the scoreline suggests, was Ireland’s third over New Zealand in the last five years and cemented theirs as the greatest emerging rivalry in recent history.
The build-up to this weekend’s series-opener has had it all. A local agency has brought A-grade gamesmanship with an ad campaign highlighting that Ireland’s never beaten the All Blacks on New Zealand soil. One ad says “0 wins in NZ”, another says “Think the flight was long? Try a 28-year unbeaten streak at Eden Park” and a third says “4 Kiwis in the team. That might help your odds a little,” referring to Ireland’s four New Zealand-born players Jamison Gibson-Park, Bundee Aki, Joey Carbery, and James Lowe.
Then there’s Covid, which has disrupted both teams. The hosts are far worse off, however, with head coach Ian Foster, his assistants John Plumtree and Joe McLeod, and midfielders David Havili and Jack Goodhue all isolating after testing positive. They have ample depth, though, and roped in the perfect man to help oversee and bolster preparations this week in Joe Schmidt, who knows the opposition inside and out having coached Ireland from 2013-2019.
The Covid chaos and Ireland’s class will make for two-way action on the betting front, but the All Blacks are nearly unbeatable at their fortress. They have a history of starting seasons slowly, though, so I see them winning but not by more than 10 points.
Australia v England
Saturday, 2 July – 11:55
A new piece of silverware will be up for grabs in this rivalry after the nations agreed to shelf the Cook Cup. In its place is the Ella-Mobbs Cup, which honours Wallabies Indigenous great Mark Ella and English World War I hero and former captain Edgar Mobbs, who played in the first Test between the two rivals in 1909.
England enter the series Down Under in desperate need of course correction after finishing a lowly third in the Six Nations and being humiliated 52-21 by the Barbarians at Twickenham a fortnight ago. To be fair, they were without several first-choice players and embraced the spirit of BaaBaas rugby instead of playing their usual game, but, the invitational team played more than half the game with 14 men.
Don’t write them off, though. Eddie Jones has guided them to eight straight wins over his country of birth, including a series whitewash in Australia in 2016. Australian rugby’s not exactly in great shape either, with the Wallabies looking to recover from a winless end-of-year tour, so this will be a hard-fought Test match.
Clear skies will allow the hosts to play a high-octane game and limit some of England’s strengths like their lineout and driving maul, which should see them finally end their losing streak against the Red Rose.
South Africa v Wales
Saturday, 2 July – 17:05
The world champions’ first challenge of the season will be to live up to expectations…expectations of the rugby world and South African supporters, 52,000 of whom will fill Loftus Versfeld. They’re expected to blow away the Welsh, who finished fifth in a woeful Six Nations campaign in which they managed just one win – a 20-17 triumph over Scotland – and crashed to a shock 22-21 loss to Italy, who’d entered the encounter on a seven-year losing streak.
What’s more, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Wainwright, Ross Moriarty, and Leigh Halfpenny are all back home nursing injuries while the South African franchises claimed maximum log points in each of the eight United Rugby Championship matches and sent the Welsh sides packing without a single log point between them in March and April.
The Springboks have had decent time to prepare, although players had to be filtered in in groups as and when their club commitments wrapped up. Most of the squad are so familiar with the structures that that shouldn’t be a big issue but having said that, there’s always a possibility that they might take some time to get going in the season-opener.
I suspect that’ll be the case and while I have no doubt that the men in green and gold’s physicality will be too much for the Dragons to handle, the -19.5 handicap is a bit too high for my liking. As bleak as their Six Nations campaign was, Wales were only blown out once, 29-7 by Ireland away, and pushed France (13-9) and England (23-19) to the limit, so I believe they’ll cover the spread.
Argentina v Scotland
Saturday, 2 July – 21:10
Facing Argentina in front of their partisan home crowd is tough at the best of times. For Scotland, that challenge will be at its steepest as they’re set to enter the Pumas’ den with the Argentinians primed for their first Test on home soil in almost three years due to the pandemic.
The match also marks the start of a new era under Michael Cheika, who’s been tasked with reviving the Pumas after the team won just three of their 12 Tests last year. The former Wallabies coach brings with him vast experience and fresh ideas and is full of confidence that he can turn his new team into title contenders at next year’s World Cup.
All is not right with Scotland. A fourth-place finish in the Six Nations, courtesy of wins over England and Italy, is satisfactory enough but issues such as players breaching team protocols for a night out on the town after the latter win raises concerns and suggests Gregor Townsend has lost his locker room.
They’re also without their two most important players in regular skipper Stuart Hogg and flyhalf Finn Russell, so the Pumas should get the Cheika era off to a winning start.