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Let’s just talk amongst ourselves

Another quiet-ish weekend of rugby gives way to reflection: of what’s happened so far, or what shouldn’t have happened, and of what needs to change in the future.

Squads have been picked, players have been recalled and/or overlooked, and the appropriate headlines have been written.

It feels like an important part of the Rugby Championship, these next two games, with a real urgency to get things sorted this week for implementation on the field. The tournament can’t be won in these next two weeks but it almost certainly can be lost; we won’t still have four teams in contention by the end of next weekend.

So there’s a lot to talk about: who got their squads right? Which coaching adjustments make sense? Who were the unlucky players? Who had the most to work on after the first block of games?

Have work-ons been appropriately worked on? Have learnings been learned?

We have much to discuss.

Question 1: What must your team get right this weekend?

There so many things Australia need to do a whole lot better than they did in either game in Argentina – and the England series as well, for that matter.

But the start is the one thing they have to get right, because it’s probably been their major collective failing over the last 18 months or so.

If they can get on a run early, register points at every given opportunity and start building scoreboard pressure, then they’ve proved to themselves that it’s a hell of a lot easier to front-run than it is to chase games.

On that point, I’ll just repeat: on the 12 occasions this season and last where they’ve trailed at halftime, they’ve only come back and won twice. Mendoza earlier this month was the second time.

And sure, there are a lot of little things they need to do right that will contribute to them ‘starting better’.

But that’s the rod they’ve made for themselves. After letting themselves down across the board last time around, it’s on the Wallabies as individuals to get it all right this week.

Start well and build from there.

Jordan Petaia of Australia attempts to avoid a tackle during a Rugby Championship match between Argentina Pumas and Australian Wallabies at San Juan del Bicentenario Stadium on August 13, 2022 in San Juan, Argentina. (Photo by Rodrigo Valle/Getty Images)

Jordan Petaia (Photo by Rodrigo Valle/Getty Images)

The All Blacks have wrested back momentum after their performance at Ellis Park and it is really about making sure they continue that. They need the same level of control, particularly in game management, but also a real focus on the breakdown.

I do not want to see them reverting to the looser style we witnessed in recent times and not committing enough resource into this facet of the game against Argentina, who have probably had the form loose trio in the competition to date. That will prove troublesome to overcome.

Onwards and upwards with a tighter, more physical approach please, Mr Foster.

The All Blacks have to kick on from Johannesburg, using that win as a benchmark to build off, as opposed to it being a peak that only came about because they needed to save their coach’s backside.

We know what New Zealand are capable of when cornered and desperate. Now that they’re out of the cage, I’ll be looking for an assertive, lead-from-the-front performance against the Pumas. If the right platform isn’t set from the start, Argentina have the chops to trouble them, and the whole coaching debate will reignite.

The Wallabies have to get a whole lot of things right.

Start well, catch the high ball securely, clean out urgently, powerfully and accurately, throw straight, kick their goals, and stop giving away dumb penalties.

Do all of that and their good run at home against the Boks can continue.

Selection, selection and selection.

Select the best players in their best positions, and only use a 6-2 bench if we have a legitimate reserve lock. The point of the Bomb Squad is to overwhelm the opposition with 14 forwards playing without brakes or need to preserve energy.

(I have three sets of boots packed. I’ll be in Adelaide, Rassie! I’ve a few wee niggles, but I can play hooker. Diggercane taught me the basics.)

Selection of the right mix of run-kick-pass in midfield is crucial against the wild attack-minded Wallabies. There will be many more chances to score tries than against the All Blacks and Wales. Time to open up and explore mismatches in speed and power (kicks must only be contestable or for deep touch).

Mistakes have been made. But a 1-1 split with New Zealand is not fatal to South Africa’s cause – both in this competition and in World Cup prep.

Unlike Ireland and Wales, who still adhere to old-school imperatives (no Test is friendly, the World Cup is big but not the be-all and end-all) and thus select highest-cap teams for every match, even if it exposes their centurions to burnout – or New Zealand, who were in an existential crisis – the Bok coaches are willing to drop a Test or two if it helps them solve their three RWC puzzles: who is our third-string hooker, who is our sixth loosie, and who is the backup player 23?

It’s not entirely respectful to Wales (and paying Bloemfontein fans) or the fate of this tournament. The only player who does not get a rest is Eben Etzebeth (365 of 400 Test minutes in 2022). The phenom who does not get a decent chance is No.8 firebrand Evan Roos, who won every individual honour in the URC.

France and England are more of the South African frame of mind. Find second and third-string players but with a spine of veterans. Accept wins and losses; eyes on the prize.

The Wallabies? We don’t know. They are injury-forced and everyday shuffling. Argentina? They seem sort of in the moderate middle.

But in Adelaide, I’m hoping Jacques Nienaber just focuses on one game. Because I’ll be there! But I doubt it.

Joseph Dweba, Duane Vermeulen, Warrick Gelant and Frans Steyn are not currently first choice Boks (Thor is just back from a surgery) but they will get a crucial look.

Los Pumas are in New Zealand where they have never beaten the All Blacks, and statistics indicate that they only beat them once a couple of years ago when they were surprised in Australia during the pandemic.

Argentina are going to play this mini-series with more optimism than previous and their objective is to improve what they did in San Juan against the Wallabies.

Winning for the away side is not a matter of results, winning would mean competing as equals and being able to capture on the field what has been prepared in the last two weeks beyond the score. Obviously winning one of the two matches would be a great achievement, but so would be taking a bonus point for losing by less than seven.

As an advantage they have a foreign coach for the first time in many years, who has confronted the men in black from different positions, and several players who were in Christchurch in the Super Rugby final where they lost to Crusaders. And we can add the experience of Pablo Matera, who would practically be playing at home.

The motivation of these players is their main weapon since many are playing for their place in the World Cup and the coaching staff has been generating depth and competition within the squad. Players with a lot of experience were given a break for this trip and priority was given to those who need minutes in this type of match.

The section that worries me is that of the props since they are almost completely renewed, with the exception of Thomas Gallo. My second concern is that Jerónimo de la Fuente’s injury in the centre of the field generates certain movements of pieces in the team where Juan Cruz Mallia could move from centre, Santiago Carreras to fullback and we could see the veteran Benjamin Urdapilleta in his natural fly-half position.

The mountain is high and difficult but Los Pumas have to start believing that they can beat anyone on their day.

Argentina sing their national anthem in Queensland

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Question 2: Who feels like the tournament favourite?

In hindsight, it was a lot easier to ask this question than it is to answer it.

I can’t actually split South Africa and New Zealand, and it’s way too easy to make the compelling argument for either of them.

Despite their historic record in Australia, the Springboks will start favourites in both games against the Wallabies, and if they can win both games, then it’s not too hard to imagine them going on with the job against Argentina to finish.

New Zealand should account for Los Pumas pretty well in Christchurch and Hamilton, and with the whole Ian Foster saga then well behind them, they’ll once again be in prime form for the Bledisloe Cup. Hoo-bloody-ray.

Hence, they can’t be split to my viewing.

Of course, they could both drop a game or two from here and it will make the rest of the Championship as intriguing as the first two rounds have already been.

Based purely on the draw, the All Blacks would be favoured from here. Three home fixtures and an away game in AFL heartland looks a good deal.

The Boks of course are capable, but I question whether they can score the bonus points probably required, while the Pumas have a tough road ahead on the road.

I am unconvinced the Wallabies can put together the forward effort to topple the Springboks twice and a visit to Eden Park just makes it tougher. New Zealand are certainly in the box seat.

New Zealand and South Africa appear the best bets to win their final four matches.

If that happens, or even if either drops a match (quite feasible), we’re looking at bonus points to break any potential tie.

Because of South Africa’s propensity to keep matches close, even when they’re dominant, that tips things, ever so slightly, towards the All Blacks.

New Zealand are always the true and actual favourite to win every match and every tournament they play in.

They have the best players. But they are poorly coached at the moment. They have an assistant coach pretending to direct Joe Schmidt and run the whole ship. So they are up and down.

I can see them having a tough time in two of their remaining matches.

Still, when Jacques Nienaber benched Malcolm Marx for rookie Joseph Dweba, and parachuted stiff Jesse Kriel to wing, and hung aching Duane Vermeulen out to dry, even if these tough Boks came back to lead 23-21 at 73 minutes on the backs of Marx, Wiese, Willie le Roux, Damian Willemse, and Pollard, only to run out of gas, the Boks had ceded this tournament favourite tag to their nemesis.

It may all pay off in the end, as the tribute band ‘Ian and the Sams’ may not have the gas next year.


If the All Blacks win the series against Los Pumas, they will have more chances of winning the tournament since the Springboks will have a pending trip to Argentina where it is never easy to win.

In the meantime, the Wallabies are navigating turbulent waters so that diminishes their chances.

The bonus points seem important and if something similar to what happened in the first two series, where the points were distributed, were to happen again, we would be facing the most fascinating Rugby Championship of recent times. Anyone could take the title, including Los Pumas.

Over to you: What does your team need to get right this weekend?

And which team is the Rugby Championship favourite from here?

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