The stage is set for a Super Saturday of note with the Tri-Nations kicking off and the Six Nations reaching its climax, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
With the world champion Springboks unable to defend their Rugby Championship crown because of a variety of Covid-19 factors, the southern hemisphere showcase reverts to the Tri-Nations, with Argentina, Australia and New Zealand each playing one another twice. The Wallabies and All Blacks will get things underway in Sydney, where a blockbuster third Bledisloe Cup clash is in store.
Then we head north, where the Six Nations is set for a thrilling finale, with Ireland, England and France all in with a shot to secure the silverware. Wales and Scotland meet in a dead rubber in Cardiff, Italy entertain England next before France and Ireland face off in a virtual decider in Paris.
Here’s how we see things playing out:
Australia v New Zealand (Saturday – 10:45 SA time)
After the Aussies ambushed their arch-rivals in Bledisloe I in Wellington, where things ended in an enthralling 16-all draw after Ridge Hodge’s last-minute penalty hit the upright, the All Blacks brought them down to earth with a comfortable 27-7 win at Eden Park.
The All Blacks aren’t the dominant force they were in the Steve Hansen era. For once, the transition from one cycle to the next hasn’t been as smooth and calculated as New Zealand Rugby is renowned for, with the jury still out on whether Ian Foster is the right man for the job. Nevertheless, they will only get better as the tournament progresses and are a lock as outright winners.
It’s clear that the stalemate in Wellington was the wake-up call the All Blacks needed. They made the necessary tactical adjustments and notably ramped up their intensity. Dave Rennie’s reign as Wallabies coach has gotten off to a promising start at this early stage. They’ll be boosted by home ground advantage but one extra gear won’t be enough for them to keep up with the men in black.
Prediction: I’m expecting a close game for the most part with the All Blacks pulling two scores clear in the final quarter.
Wales v Scotland (Saturday – 16:15 SA time)
With only pride to play for, these teams will look to finish their disappointing campaigns on a positive note. The Scots head to Cardiff with momentum on their side, both pre and post-lockout. Back-to-back wins over Italy and France see them sit in fourth, while they shook off the rust with a 48-7 trampling of Georgia at the weekend.
Wales have been the biggest disappointments this season, Wayne Pivac’s tenure getting off to a rough start with just a solitary win (first up against Italy). Languishing in fifth place, Pivac has plenty to ponder after his charges were condemned to a 38-21 loss by France last weekend.
Defence has been the Dragons’ downfall but it should hold up against the Scots. The Millennium Stadium is a major factor in this rivalry as Scotland haven’t tasted victory there in 18 years. Scotland have been dreadful on the road in general in recent years, winning just three of their last 10, which coupled with the Dragons’ desperation to snap their three-match losing streak, point to a Welsh win.
Prediction: Wales by seven
Italy v England (Saturday – 18:45 SA time)
Franco Smith’s Azzurri have been reduced to cannon fodder, losing heavily in all four of their fixtures. They’ve never beaten England and it’ll take a minor miracle for them to break their duck against an English side with their eyes on the prize. Sitting second on 13 points, England will be determined to claim the full five points to put extra pressure on pacesetters Ireland.
Eddie Jones’ men were denied of an opportunity to regain rhythm following the postponement of the tournament in March as their scheduled hit-out against the Barbarians last weekend was cancelled after a dozen BaaBaas breached Covid-19 protocols.
What’s in question here is the margin, not the result. With every point counting toward surpassing Ireland’s superior for-against ratio (see below) and no rain on the cards, I expect England to storm out of the gate and keep their foot on the gas to overcome the spread.
Prediction: England by 40
France v Ireland (Saturday – 22:05 SA time)
It may have come later than ever, but fans couldn’t have hoped for a more exciting conclusion to this year’s Six Nations. On 14 points, a bonus-point win for Ireland will assure them of the championship regardless of England’s exploits in Rome. If they win without a bonus-point and England pick up maximum points, the champions will be crowned via points difference, with Ireland starting the final round with a healthy 23-point advantage (+38 to England’s +15).
Level on points with England (13) but third on points difference (+13 to England’s +15), France must win the season finale AND better England’s expected winning margin against Italy. The intensity will thus be at an all-time high inside the Paris pressure cooker.
Both teams are fresh off emphatic wins, Ireland thumping Italy 50-17 and France walloping Wales 38-21. Les Bleus have looked impressive only to slip up against Scotland. That 28-17 shock was the latest example of France’s erratic nature, which makes betting on them a gamble regardless of form.
I like consistency when I put my money down. Ireland are not only more level-headed but have also had Les Bleus’ number in recent years, winning six of the last seven showdowns between the two nations, including a 15-13 victory in their last meeting at the Stade de France in 2018. Defence and discipline will win the day and I believe the Irish will have the edge in both departments to pip it in a final-type game.
Prediction: Ireland by 3