The Rugby Championship goes down to the wire this weekend with the All Blacks and Springboks neck-and-neck and the Wallabies and Pumas having an outside chance to snatch the silverware, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Contrasting bonus-point wins in Melbourne and Buenos Aires in Round Five left New Zealand and South Africa on 14 apiece, with the Kiwis entering the final round in first place with a superior points difference of 13.
Hosting the Wallabies and Pumas in Auckland and Durban this time around, every point scored and conceded will count for the All Blacks and Springboks in their title shootout.
South Africa will be hoping for a Wallabies win as it would mean they’d clinch the crown with a victory at Kings Park. If New Zealand win but fail to get a bonus point, a maximum haul would see the Springboks reign supreme while a bonus-point win for the All Blacks would mean the world champions have to claim a full house and maul the Pumas by a massive margin.
Australia, on 10, require a full-house victory and for both home teams to come out empty handed while Argentina, on nine, have the slimmest of chances as they require a big bonus-point win, both hosts to be shut out, and for Australia to win without an additional log point.
New Zealand v Australia
Saturday, 24 September – 09:05
The heartbreaking way the Wallabies were denied a famous win last Thursday may well have sucked the last bit of life out of them.
Initially appearing like a horrendous call, transcribed spider cam video revealed French referee Mathieu Raynal was right to blow up Bernard Foley for time-wasting. With that, the All Blacks were awarded a scrum five metres from the Wallabies’ line from where Jordie Barrett scored to snatch a 39-37 win.
It was a crushing and cruel way to go down for an Australian team who showed great heart to come back from 18 points down and within seconds of victory to give themselves a shot at ending their 20-year Bledisloe Cup drought.
That opportunity is now lost and after pouring absolutely everything into the Melbourne match-up, I don’t think they’ll have enough left to do the Springboks a favour.
Yes, the All Blacks have suffered historic losses to Ireland, twice, and Argentina on home soil this season, but none of those were in Auckland. They’re all but unstoppable at Eden Park, where they annihilated Ireland 42-19 in the first encounter of the three-Test series in July and, more importantly, haven’t lost to Australia in the professional era.
Scoring tries against the old enemy wasn’t an issue, they ran in five, and they’ll be sure not to make the same mistake of taking their foot off the gas which, unfortunately for South Africa, will probably see them secure a bonus-point win.
South Africa v Argentina
Saturday, 24 September 17:05
The benefit of playing second is that the Springboks will know exactly what they need to do to clinch the title. With the All Blacks having a 13-point lead, the men in green and gold will be hoping that Australia, at the very least, don’t lose by more than seven to give them a target of 21 or less to beat the Pumas by.
They’ll be preparing with the mentality that it’ll take such a runaway full-house win and the coaches will be drilling home how to go about this pursuit. For them, it’s not to throw the ball around but instead, to stick to their structures, much to their average fan’s anxious bemusement.
Keeping it tight and direct worked a treat in the first half last weekend, earning them a 22-6 lead at the break, and they would’ve left Buenos Aires with an even bigger win than the 36-20 triumph they ended up with had they not strayed and fell off in intensity in the third quarter.
That they’ve opted for continuity is a shining neon light that they plan to stick to their power game. With just the solitary change to the starting pack that handled Michael Cheika’s charges, Pieter-Steph du Toit replacing Franco Mostert, their forward dominance should continue in Durban.
If anything, Frans Steyn’s injury-enforced return to flyhalf should further the push for a simplified approach, which will power them to an emphatic win that might, I repeat, might just see them pip the All Blacks to the post.