The Rugby Championship kicks off with an absolute blockbuster with the Springboks rolling out the green and gold carpet for the All Blacks in Nelspruit on Saturday afternoon, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The game’s greatest rivals will wage war over successive weekends on South African soil, as will the Pumas and the Wallabies in Argentina.
Given the draw and the current state of the sides, the 2019 Rugby World Champions are at a great value to secure the Southern Hemisphere crown at 2.50 outright. The odds-makers are expecting the embattled All Blacks to turn things around and retain the title at 1.90 with Australia (5.50) and Argentina (34.00) expected to prop up the table.
South Africa v New Zealand
Saturday, 6 August – 17:05
The next chapter in this storied rivalry is ultra-compelling as the roles have been reversed. In the past, facing their greatest foils served as the tonic for struggling Springboks sides to rediscover their identity and strength.
Fans feared the worst when South Africa headed to the Land of the Long White Cloud on the back of consecutive losses to Argentina (32-19) and Australia (23-18) in 2018. The assignment in Wellington galvanised the men in green and gold and saw them claim a famous 36-34 win. That heroic performance would be the turning point that led to their World Cup triumph the following year.
Last year, the Springboks dropped two straight against Australia. The second, a 30-17 bashing in Brisbane, was their worst performance of the Rassie Erasmus/Jacques Nienaber era at the time and raised concerns that the following week’s historic 100th Test against the All Blacks would be a massacre. Instead, Siya Kolisi and company succumbed to a last-gasp penalty goal (19-17) and went on to score a thrilling 31-29 win in the rematch the next week.
Now it’s the All Blacks who are teetering. The perennial standard-bearers are at an all-time low, languishing in fourth position in the world rankings following a first-ever series defeat to Ireland on home soil. The current crop are a far cry from powerhouses past, lacking in leadership, confidence and accuracy.
They’ve never been as blunt on attack and vulnerable on defence. This saw them being kept scoreless in the first quarter in all three Tests against the Irish and leak tries through uncharacteristic mistakes like players shooting out of the line and missing one-on-one tackles. Their kicking game has been ineffective while their lineout has misfired as well.
Ian Foster and Sam Cane have escaped the axe but John Plumtree and Brad Mooar did not. Former Crusaders and Fiji assistant coach Jason Ryan has replaced Plumtree as forwards coach, while under-fire Foster has taken on the additional attacking duties.
The schedule adds to the embattled All Blacks’ woes and, yet, despite all of this, you’d be daft to write them off. Rather, expect them to put their best foot forward and push the favoured hosts to the limit at Mbombela Stadium. The Springboks have momentum on their side having stepped it up a notch in the series-clinching 30-14 win over Wales in Cape Town last time out, and they’ll be keen to kick on – literally and figuratively.
In a clash of contrasting styles, the power of the Springboks – primarily in the set pieces and driving maul – and superior depth as the quintessential 23-man team should be decisive.
Argentina v Australia
Saturday, 6 August 21:10
With former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika now at the helm of the Pumas, a physical chess match is in store at Estadio Malvinas Argentinas.
The Australian’s appointment led to immediate success in the form of a 2-1 series win over Scotland last month, which will inspire belief of a bright future after the Pumas endured a winless Rugby Championship campaign and won just three of their 12 Tests under Mario Ledesma last year.
They also couldn’t have asked for a better draw than starting the tournament with back-to-back home Tests against Australia, who’re coming off a 2-1 series defeat to England at home and who Cheika has in-depth knowledge of.
The biggest tactical change Cheika’s made is moving to a more ball-in-hand approach and with the Wallabies also favouring the running game, it should be an entertaining encounter.
It starts up front, though, where the brutal battles with England would’ve steeled Australia. That iron sharpens iron improvement won’t be enough for Dave Rennie’s men to stand firm against South Africa and New Zealand but it should suffice to put them on the front foot against Argentina.
What’s more, the Pumas have a number of serial offenders in their ranks, individuals whose disciplinary issues have cost the team dearly. Cooler heads prevail and I believe that’ll be Michael Hooper and company.