The Rugby Championship is under way for 2019, and it’s crazy to comprehend, but after this weekend the competition will be beyond the halfway point.
And it means that this is really the only week where teams can tinker around with themselves – and no, that’s not a euphemism – before the 2019 title is decided.
So to varying degrees, all four teams have been in at the mechanics this week. Some teams are just getting new spark plugs; others are having a minor service. One is tossing up between a spit-and-polish detail or a full engine bay rebuild.
We’ll find out this morning which way they’ve gone.
LAST WEEK (and Overall): Digger, Harry, and Geoff 2; Nobes and myself 1.
For Week 2 of The Rugby Championship, I put this question to the guys:
Top improvement I believe will be in their handling and in no small part, decision making.
Some of the dropped ball and pushed passes were infuriating last weekend, and I would think a bit more composure while in possession will be a big step forward, especially against what shapes as a formidable South African side who have shown their counter attacking abilities.
Another big improvement would be winning in Wellington again, please. The All Blacks have dropped two of the last three and a second straight loss against the Boks in Wellington just won’t do.
And if someone would put their hand up at 6, that would also be pleasant.
TIPS: New Zealand, Argentina
SURE THING: We should expect a little bit more care around the rucks this week, both in when to commit and how to clean out, but then, maybe not. The Wellington crowd will be ever so slightly quieter this time around minus a certain parochial Saffa trying to get Faf’s attention.
Our rush-umbrella defence is still a crap shoot, with the umbrella sometimes getting stuck or opening the wrong way. We definitely have elite fitness: the line speed was off the charts. Even the big boys had legs.
Australia seemed to go into contact too high, suggesting dead legs. So, I’m looking to see better defensive organisation on first phase and in the reload.
Personally, as a huge Frans Steyn fan, he who seems perpetually untackleable, I’d like to see Frans-Am in the midfield, and with Kolbe and Leyds involved, so we have all real footballers behind Faf-Pollard.
The other thing is lineout throwing: if you can’t find Lood de Jager lifted by Elstadt and Etzebeth, you can’t throw.
TIPS: ALL BLACKS, PUMAS.
SURE THING: If Thomas Lavanini comes in lateral and at speed after the whistle and clocks a defenceless Hooper in the sternum right in front of the ref, Cheika will not protest a card.
The compressed nature of this year’s Rugby Championship, plus the fact that all coaches are looking to change personnel and test the depth of their squads ahead of the World Cup, means that addressing changes from week to week is a very difficult proposition.
For the Wallabies, there are any number of improvements needed – the scrum, composure in finishing, competitiveness at the breakdown, discipline, and not seeking refuge in blaming the ref for their own failings, all spring to mind. But the thing I’ll be looking for this week is their ability to seize the initiative and play the game on their terms, not the opposition’s terms.
To do this, the Wallabies need more ball runners to run with more purpose, aggressive first-up tackles to be made, and intelligent kicking to put the Pumas under pressure. That’s not too much to ask is it?
As for the All Blacks, with a loss to the Boks at this venue last year, and higher stakes looming on the horizon, I think they’ll be happy with a win – any win. To do so, they’ll need to show far better discipline than they did last week, both off the ball and in retaining 50/50 possession.
TIPS: NEW ZEALAND, ARGENTINA
SURE THING: There is unfinished business. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto will miss several line out throws, his eyes not fixated on the ball, but instead scanning the crowd for a sight of ‘Baldy’, the Wallabies ‘fan’ who caused such a storm after the corresponding fixture last year.
The two main things I would like for Los Pumas to improve are the percentage of missed tackles and that ball carriers can gain the advantage line. The opportunities created must become points on the scoreboard.
With respect to the next game Los Pumas, if they want to win, they cannot allow the Wallabies backs to play rugby.
They must slow down the game to allow time to reposition and be very attentive to the different variables in attack that the locals will present.
I think Mario Ledesma is going to do a couple of experiments to give the opportunity to players who have not seen much play time and that can backfire against him, since the Jaguares already have a very oiled system and newcomers can fail to understand it.
It was clear that Nicolas Sanchez against the All Blacks on many occasions did not know what to do with the ball, and ended up kicking without a predetermined destination.
The Wallabies on the other hand did not play well against the Springboks, but had opportunities in the first half they missed. They should win this match, but I can’t tip against Los Pumas.
On the other game, the All Blacks will have several of their players back and it will be an interesting match to see how the Erasmus experiment works. I go for the locals.
TIPS: ALL BLACKS, LOS PUMAS.
SURE THING: If the Wallabies lose, M. Cheika will blame the officials one more time and the press will eat him alive.
Nothing has changed my opinion first expressed on Tuesday that I wouldn’t mind the Wallabies this morning naming the same 23 as went down at Ellis Park to South Africa, and so a revamped approach based on the players selected is my priority.
But I could possibly make a few tweaks within that 23. I could probably live with Tom Banks and Dane Haylett-Petty, with the reasoning being Banks doesn’t lose nearly as much in his game playing on the wing as Haylett-Petty does. I loved that Banks was picked at fullback; but the greater good might push him to the wing.
I could potentially switch Jack Dempsey and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, too, between the XV and the bench.
More than anything though, I want to see the in-form ball-carriers utilised for their ball-carrying.
Arnold, Rodda, Salakaia-Loto if he starts; Kuridrani. Tupou from the bench.
But beyond the obvious, I want to see the Wallabies take the game to Argentina and create second-phase opportunities through the offload and create some disruption in their defensive line.
If the Wallabies allow Los Pumas to simply slide in defence while they shovel the ball from sideline to sideline, that will be playing into the hands of the Argentineans and their broken-play game.
The Wallabies need to play harder and smarter.
TIPS: New Zealand, probably, at home, notwithstanding Diggers concerns about watching another Cake Tin loss. And Australia, out of sheer unadulterated, parochial, and irrational desperation.
SURE THING: Babies and bathwater everywhere when the Wallabies name their side this morning. Facepalms all round. Upwards of ten personnel and positional changes and exactly nil lessons learned from Johannesburg.
Who have you got, Roarers? Who gets your tip this weekend?