After a stunning collective comeback by the Home Nations, all four power struggles between Northern and Southern Hemisphere powerhouses will be decided on a super Saturday for the ages, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
An unprecedented weekend of Test rugby is in store after Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland squared their respective three-Test series against South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina last weekend.
It’s left us with a dream scenario – winners take all wars in Wellington, Sydney, Cape Town, and Santiago del Estero. When the dust settles, I have it split 2-2 between the SANZAAR sides and the invaders from the North. Here’s who I’m backing and why:
New Zealand v Ireland
Saturday, 16 July – 09:05
It might sound overly dramatic, but the All Blacks are at an all-time low going into the blockbuster weekend. The historic 23-12 home loss to the Irish last weekend saw them crash to their lowest-ever position of fourth in the world rankings and ramped up the pressure on coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane, whose leadership aptitude has long been questioned.
The understated way Ireland celebrated their first-ever victory over the Kiwis in New Zealand showed how focused they are to make the truly ground-breaking history of achieving a maiden series win in the Land of the Long White Cloud and confirmed suspicions that the current crop of All Blacks don’t have the invincible aura of the teams that came before them.
After shooting themselves in the foot in the series-opening 42-19 loss, Ireland cleaned up their act, upped the intensity – especially on defence, which saw them dislodge the ball with big hits on a number of occasions – and reaped the rewards, with the famous win moving them up to second in the rankings.
Undoubtedly, the hosts conceding a red and two yellow cards were massive factors, but Andy Farrell’s men had been the better team when it was 15 against 15. Discipline is an obvious area the under-pressure All Blacks will focus on this week. Another is their accuracy under the high ball after they lost most of the aerial battles last weekend, while they’re set to be bolstered by a few returning key players.
More than anything, though, this titanic tussle comes down to whether or not the All Blacks can dig deep and forcibly take back their respect. Yes, they’re out-of-sorts, but when the All Blacks’ backs are against the wall, they generally rise to the challenge, so I’m backing them to edge a cliffhanger.
Australia v England
Saturday, 16 July 11:55
After Eddie Jones’ tantrum following England’s 30-28 series-opening defeat, his charges did the talking on the pitch last weekend. Fronting up physically, they bullied the Wallabies to roar into a 19-0 lead and won 25-17 in the end. Two contentious yellow card calls against Australia are just enough to leave the outcome of the decider on a knife edge.
England’s physical dominance was profound, both in general collisions and at scrum time, so much so that it’ll take something special for Australia to successfully stave off the surge in Sydney.
To that end, theirs is now a war of attrition. Both sides have a lengthy list of injuries and England, for my money, have greater depth, so they’re high-value underdogs.
South Africa v Wales
Saturday, 16 July – 17:05
Written off when they touched down in South Africa, with all signs pointing to a 3-0 whitewash by the hosts, the Welsh should be applauded for the character they’ve shown to confront the world champions head-on and turn the series into a historically hard-fought humdinger.
After their famous smash-and-grab in Bloemfontein last weekend, the visitors will be brimming with belief that they can do what just a week ago seemed impossible – claim a maiden series win over the Springboks on South African soil.
The men in green and gold were rusty in their last-gasp 32-29 win in the opening encounter and their severe lack of cohesion ultimately did the experimental team in last weekend, although again, the Dragons deserve credit for the first-ever 13-12 win.
As fiery as Wayne Pivac’s underdogs have been, they’re on their last legs after the bruising back-to-back battles, whereas the Springbok ‘A’ team are essentially back together, rested, and in finals mode – which is when Siya Kolisi and company have proven to be at their best.
Therefore, the fresher Springboks should clinch the series with a rather comfortable win.
Argentina v Scotland
Saturday, 16 July – 21:10
As was the case with New Zealand and Australia, indiscipline played a part in Argentina’s change in fortunes last weekend. It did so, though, to a far lesser degree. The main reason why Scotland were able to turn the tables so emphatically – rebounding from a 26-18 loss to register a 29-6 win – was their back-to-basics approach.
Gregor Townsend had done his post-mortem with aplomb and sent his side into the second showdown with a direct strategy. It worked to a tee, from the set-piece ascendency they established to a pick-and-go try. The Scots showed off dynamism in waves as well, Mark Bennett’s try being a shining example.
The Pumas’ already worrying casualty count shot up to alarming in the wake of the defeat. They’ve been reduced to a barebones bunch with captain Julian Montoya, Santiago Cordero, Domingo Miotti, and Felipe Ezcurra joining Tomas Cubelli, Nicolas Sanchez, Pablo Matera, and Benjamin Urdapilleta on the shelf.
Just why Scotland are still the underdogs I don’t know; home ground advantage must be the main reason, but I’m definitely not complaining as I see them heading home with the spoils.