The ultra-competitive Rugby Championship resumes with a rare Thursday Test – the Bledisloe Cup opener in Melbourne – before the Springboks tackle the Pumas in Buenos Aires on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
With each rugby team having two wins and two losses, log leaders New Zealand (10) hold a narrow one-point lead over the rest of the field with South Africa second, Australia third, and Argentina fourth on points difference.
After suffering heavy defeats in Round Four, the Wallabies and Pumas would’ve welcomed the one-week break and will be aiming to make the most of their home ground advantage in the penultimate round of the Southern Hemisphere showpiece.
Australia v New Zealand
Thursday, 15 September – 11:45
For Australia, the Bledisloe Cup opener has come a round too late. With New Zealand having a 20-year stranglehold on the silverware, the Wallabies need all the help they can get but after the sharp turnaround in fortunes the teams experienced last time out, Dave Rennie’s men have a mountain to climb.
The All Blacks put 50 past the Pumas, while the Wallabies were bullied by the Springboks. The world champions provided the blueprint for beating the Aussies and the physicality required is exactly what saw the Kiwis get revenge against the Argentinians.
The All Blacks’ set pieces have been second to none all campaign and their scrum, in particular, will be a big weapon against the Wallabies, especially with rain showers expected. They unleashed several slick set plays off the scrum, which saw them score a number of tries, and they’ll be sure to use it as a launch pad again.
That Ian Foster’s charges returned to their super clinical best in Hamilton will be a concern for the Wallabies but what’s even more important was their dominant and disciplined defensive display. As the Springboks showed, nothing breaks the Wallabies’ will like being shut down on attack and that’s exactly what I see New Zealand doing.
Ardie Savea, who’s absent to prepare for the birth of his child, will be missed but the All Blacks are the far more settled side. The Wallabies are still minus Michael Hooper and bouncing between flyhalves with no one taking ownership following Quade Cooper’s season-ending injury, while they’re also without first-choice second-rower Rory Arnold this week. They’ve made eight changes to New Zealand’s two.
All these factors point to the All Blacks piling more misery on their old rivals at Marvel Stadium.
Argentina v South Africa
Saturday, 17 September 21:10
Pumas country has been full of pitfalls for the Springboks. They drew the first Rugby Championship clash there in 2012 (16-16) and escaped with narrow wins (22-17 and 33-31) before crashing to a first-ever loss (26-24) in 2016.
They then traded big wins, the Springboks prevailing 41-23 and then being pummeled 32-19 before securing a title-clinching 46-13 triumph on their last trip in 2019.
If the current campaign with its twists and turns has taught us anything it’s what happens between the ears is more important than what happens between the lines.
The Pumas, after their perfect performance to secure a historic win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, were nowhere the next week, losing by 50 to crash from the top to the bottom of the log.
Arguably more than any other team, Argentina run on emotion and making history in Christchurch left them content to take a hiding in Hamilton. Expect the ‘real’ Pumas to pitch up in front of their partisan home crowd this weekend.
To that end, ingenuity on attack will be as paramount as patience for the Springboks to breach the defence. The four-try victory in Sydney, inspired by the injection of exciting game-changers like Damian Willemse and Canan Moodie, was several steps in the right direction, but their conversion rate is still not where they’d want it to be.
Fix that and they could secure an all-important bonus-point win to keep their title hopes alive. Regardless, the intensity and brutality they’ve rediscovered should be the driving force toward victory at Estadio Jose Amalfitani. Willemse’s had time to work on his goal-kicking, too, so his aim should be sharper, which is why I’m tipping the Springboks to cover the spread.