So South Africa have claimed The Rugby Championship for 2019, their first southern hemisphere title since 2009 and the first time they’ve held this particular trophy.
And well done to the Boks. Rassie Erasmus has them humming at the moment; peaking at the right time, you might say.
But it’s fair to say all interest will be on Auckland this weekend.
Has the All Blacks’ aura really started to slip? Could the Wallabies finally end their Eden Park hoodoo? Is said hoodoo going to be enough to get New Zealand back on track for the Rugby Cup defence. And what have both sides and the tipping panel learned from last weekend’s record scoreline in Perth?
WEEK 3: Digger, Harry, Geoff, Brett 1; Nobes none.
OVERALL: Digger, Harry, Geoff, Brett 3; Nobes 1
For the week after the final week of The Rugby Championship, this was the question I put to the guys:
QUESTION: How have your thoughts and perspectives about your respective team changed over the course of the first three Tests of 2019?
Feelings of relative comfort and certainty have now given way over the course of this diluted international period to feelings of confusion and uncertainty heading into this final round. There’s also a healthy dose of nervousness, which in its roundabout kind of way is an extremely good thing.
Interest has now peaked with an Eden Park sell-out, as many New Zealanders will be expecting both a response and to have their growing fears allayed somewhat after some, well, frankly dismal performances and results. Several veteran players are under the most scrutiny.
It’s been a long time since the All Blacks have been in a position with a must-win such as this and certainly not after such an emphatic loss. This is real pressure and perhaps, a very good thing leading up to a World Cup.
Serious questions need to be asked of our current props and depth at lock, while finding some sort of balance within our loose forward mix.
Of course, I have the faith that the All Blacks can turn this around and history suggests this is usually the case. But one cannot help but feel this performance against what shouldn’t be an underrated Wallaby side any longer will set a serious tone for the majority of this group with an eye to Japan.
TIPS: NEW ZEALAND, SOUTH AFRICA
SURE THING: Jaco really is on a hiding to nothing as I am sure there will be plenty of scrutiny over every contact and cleanout, as cries of consistency are heard from near and far along with a fair amount of ‘whataboutism’. Barrett will score another one or two, hopefully four.
If a heavy trophy is won on the Altiplano and nobody sees it live, was it real? The Bok is back!
Before the Rugby Championship, I felt the challenge was to decide our midfield, develop a better rush-umbrella system, finally determine the scrum half depth chart, test loosie combos, and hone our set pieces.
Oh, and not lose anyone vital.
For the most part, mission accomplished. We have 7-8 props ready, abrasive hookers, a posse of locks who’d walk into any other team, data on loose forwards, an improved scrum, a less wobbly lineout, three halfbacks, a clear backline field general with an argument for being the best flyhalf in the world in 2019.
And we have better backline defence, with Lukhanyo Am the apparent starter at the crucial 13 slot. I like Frans Steyn’s return. And no big injuries.
Continued worries: two or three rubbish lineout throws per match, flaccid starts, indecisive wings, and a limp Willie.
TIPS: NEW ZEALAND, SOUTH AFRICA ‘B’
SURE THING: Blacklash!
Even if Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika would have us believe otherwise, the outlook has definitely changed for both the All Blacks and Wallabies after the Rugby Championships.
That title is now done and dusted (congrats to Rassie and his Boks) and World Cup aspirations too, are parked to the side for this week. What we have is a fair dinkum, no-holds barred contest for the Bledisloe Cup, with no experimenting or bluffing.
A month ago I was thinking that the All Blacks would be looking for a break-out performance in Auckland, a nice tune-up for their top side if you like, before Japan.
Now, they’ll be happy to squeak a one-point win, keep the silverware, and start for Japan all over again, next week. Like everyone, I’ll be surprised if there isn’t an emphatic response, particularly from the maligned forward pack, class doesn’t disappear overnight.
Confidence can however, particularly if the All Blacks don’t start this week on the front foot. Watch for them to go back to basics and ramp up the defensive pressure level to try to force more errors from the Wallabies.
The Wallabies are clearly ahead of expectation. Last week I called for them to provide a sense that they could take the game to the All Blacks and play the match on their terms – which is exactly what they did.
What was atypical though, was how they maintained their assertiveness and skill level, over the whole 80 minutes.
It’s a big ask to expect any team to repeat such a performance in successive weeks, particularly at a ground where they have such a dismal record. But now that a new marker has been laid, the challenge is there for the Wallabies not to take a step back.
TIPS: NEW ZEALAND, SOUTH AFRICA
SURE THING: Referee Jaco Peyper will come under fire from losing fans for not refereeing the game ‘properly’.
Like most Wallabies fans, my thoughts and perspectives on the team hasn’t been so much gently woken as they’ve been jolted to life with death-metal music and a bucket of cold water in the face.
Simply put, Australia are playing in a way that just cannot be ignored.
And it’s a funny feeling, because on one hand it’s exactly what fans have been calling out for but have seen very little evidence of its likelihood in recent seasons. And then on the other hand, it’s exactly what Michael Cheika and the team have been talking about in recent seasons but have shown little evidence of producing.
The improvements from Johannesburg to Brisbane to Perth are such that nerves about making it out of Rugby World Cup Pool D have been replaced by a very realistic chance of reaching the Semis.
Nerves around the Bledisloe are still there, but as I mentioned on Tuesday, Eden Park just doesn’t seem so daunting this week. It may still pan out that way, but the Wallabies have earned the right to be confident going into the game.
Whispers of team selections are interesting as I write this. The Wallabies appear they will give the side who won in Perth the chance to make history in Auckland, and only make injury-forced changes. Combinations will remain.
The All Blacks look set to drop a number of players who they wouldn’t have entertained the thought of dropping even a few weeks ago.
It’s a really interesting turn of events and I can’t wait for Saturday night.
TIPS: AUSTRALIA, SOUTH AFRICA
SURE THING: Blah, blah, blah, Jaco Peyper. My learned colleagues are on the money, because there has already been far too much speculation and outright guesswork about what Peyper may or may not do at Eden Park.
I wish I could see the future so clearly. Though I still wouldn’t waste my time worrying about rugby referees…
Very worrying what was produced by Los Pumas in this edition of the Rugby Championship. It is clear that at this level you cannot win with a scrum so weak since many penalties are generated against, and the balls that are gained are of very poor quality to launch attacks that can break the advantage line or give the first step to do so.
In the first two games the team spirit kept them in a winning position, but in the latter against the Boks that spirit was broken in the second half, something that had not happened this year.
The players who came from Europe did not provide improvements or presence and could not match the team in the system. A team that looked tired by the way.
The outlook is not good if the scrum does not improve and the defensive system is not adjusted since the missed tackles added 32, 26, and 25 in the order of how the games were played. Too many at any level.
I think it is not a question of names but rather of coaching that is also under pressure after what was done by Gonzalo Quesada and his staff in the last season of Super Rugby.
The scrum seemed to have been routed or at least improved during Super Rugby but in these three games it has been falling backward vertiginously.
There are 40 days to improve but it is clear that the other teams will also improve and Los Pumas will start that race from behind. It is what it is; depth is an issue, and only South Africa and England have fifty players each that can suit their teams comfortably without compromising their game.
Argentina is at the other end of that spectrum and must deal with that the best way it can. I am a firm believer that teamwork and smart coaching are the only ways to overcome that deficit.
TIPS: NEW ZEALAND, SOUTH AFRICA
SURE THING: South Africa is a strong contender to break the rule that whoever wins the Rugby Championship never wins the World Cup.