Well then… the completion of the Rugby Championship for the year and the obligatory non-Rugby Championship games last week brings with it one very harsh reality for the southern hemisphere nations.
The Rugby World Cup is one game away.
Are we ready? Have all the appropriate boxes been ticked? Which countries have the most unticked boxes?
And not that we were counting, but how many ways was the TRC tipping panel title split?
Well, let’s knock that out of the way up front: three ways.
WEEK 4: Digger, Nobes, Harry, Geoff 2; Brett 1.
OVERALL: Digger, Harry, Geoff 5; Brett 4; Nobes 3.
To wrap up The Rugby Championship portion of 2019, and with a very obvious view to the RWC next month, I put this question to the guys:
QUESTION: At the completion of the southern hemisphere Tests, what is the biggest fear you hold for your respective countries with the Rugby World Cup just a month away?
With the make-up of the teams selected so far this season my biggest fear is we lack size in the loose and that our lineout can quickly become a weakness.
While I understand the theories around the Japanese climate and the fast tracks (remember the bold predictions of 400+ scores for the recent Cricket World Cup?), once the World Cup knockout rounds lend themselves to being tight and torrid affairs, I can certainly see some likely opponents able to exploit my perceived weaknesses. And this makes me rather nervous.
I remember Sam Whitelock getting up in front of Victor Matfield to steal his ball in what I believe was both a defining moment in that semi-final in 2015 and what I firmly believe was the winning of the World Cup for NZ, and I fear we may just see a reversal in this edition with the All Blacks on the receiving end.
Otherwise I am feeling rather peachy about the whole thing, though it would be nice to think Brodie Retallick will in fact be fit enough to take part. Fingers crossed, that will be the case.
Good to see Sam Cane return to his bully boy best.
Every time the best back in the world, Beauden Bok-Beating Bastard Best Brother Barrett, approaches the tee, even if he dribbles it a few meters forward, and especially if the kick is on the right side, I imagine rugby Kiwis feeling nauseous.
It’s the same when one of South Africa’s two best-in-the-world forwards, Malcolm Marx, trudges toward a 5-meter lineout, especially on the left side, and wipes the ball with a towel. His understudy Bongi Mbonambi provokes similar fear in me. No hooker duo in world rugby scrums or tackles or carries harder than Marx-Bongi, and Marx is Pocock-esque over tackled ball.
But they cannot find Etzebeth, Mostert, Snyman, and Lood even if they are a foot above competitors. Marx flutters. Bongi throws the fast ball. We give away 2-3 a game. It’s absurd. And reminiscent of the 2015 semi-final loss to the All Blacks.
Other than that, Faf de Klerk’s wayward boot bothers me, and Willie le Roux’s lack of form.
Two bites at the cherry for me, and two entirely different answers for Australia and New Zealand!
My biggest fear for the Wallabies is that they will lose to Fiji in their pool match and, for the first time, fail to make it out of the group stage.
Some may see that as an opportunity to shake up Australian rugby, but the truth is that it would be a massive setback for the psyche of a sport which has struggled for success and a positive public profile over the last decade or so.
For the All Blacks, my fear is that they might get tempted to get ahead of themselves and insist on playing a high risk, high pace game behind the advantage line, against sides who are now fast and fit enough to rush up and knock them over for all 80 minutes.
Last week’s match in Auckland showed how good the All Blacks are when they keep the game plan simple, get the basics right and force the opposition to play loosely – not the other way around.
After last weekend, the fear is very obvious: a chronically passive breakdown.
The Wallabies proved to themselves in Perth what a strong breakdown performance can produce on top of a strong set piece platform, with quick ball all night fuelling an attack that had the best team in the world on the back foot even before they went a man down.
A week later, and with only one forced change to the XV, it was like a bout of amnesia was dished out to the Wallabies as they had their passports scanned in Auckland.
That part of the Wallabies game has long been the most consistently inconsistent, and while some players buckle under pressure more than others, the net result is the same: a passive breakdown means their best and worst can be a long way apart.
There’s no doubt Pool D teams will sense this as an opportunity, and why wouldn’t they? Samoa on September 7 can’t come quick enough, though the truth is we won’t know if they have or can overcome this issue until they string a couple of strong breakdown performances together.
The biggest concern for Los Pumas is finding a scrum. At this level you cannot play without scrum.
Mario Ledesma is at least trying alternatives, switching Marcos Kremer to the lock position with Guido Petty, just the same that England does with Maro Itoje. Nothing really fancy but at least is something.
Both starting props are very young and the two substitutes seem to have more experience, but in the loose game it seems that young people have advantages. If this is resolved, my second doubt begins: what to do with the ball.
On one hand Los Pumas have two flyhalves with a lot of experience, but one does not seem to be at his best level and the other will have to do a quick course to join a system where its whole game revolves around that position.
If these two things can be solved, I think the team will win in confidence and maybe can advance in a very difficult Pool C.
BONUS QUESTION: Who is one player either inside or outside your respective country’s current squad who you think could make a difference at the RWC?
Digger: Quite a few spring to mind, Retallick an obvious choice along with a host of others, but the chap I would like to single out is Sevu Reece, he seems to have a golden touch and as a relative unknown, similar to Nehe Milner Skudder in 2015, has the ability to surprise and be a real star in this tournament and has an attacking skill set few can match and a couple of moments of brilliance may well prove crucial to NZ chances.
Harry: I think Pieter-Steph du Toit is the best 6 in the world over the last two seasons. His RWC form (together with Faf-Pollard-Willie) is probably our bellwether. But the unsmiling Bismarck du Plessis would add more than gregarious octogenarian Schalk Brits.
Geoff: Is there a player outside of the current Wallabies squad who could make a difference to their fortunes? Yes there is, Leinster favourite Scott Fardy would provide the hard body and hard head that is needed for the Wallabies pack to be consistently combative – not just intermittently. But unless there’s a huge surprise to be unveiled in the Qantas hangar tomorrow, it ain’t happening.
And with the All Blacks squad not due to be announced until next week, it’s a bit of a guess as to a missing player who could make a difference, so I’m putting it all back on the big ‘Guzzler’, Brodie Retallick, to fully recover from his shoulder injury and add an extra presence and dimension to the All Blacks’ performance once the quarter finals start. You don’t win World Cups without genuine world class players stepping up and getting the job done, and I don’t think New Zealand can win without him.
Brett: I am intrigued by what Jordan Petaia might become as a player, but I’m nervous about throwing him into a RWC to find out. So in a squad short of finishers, and with reservations about trying to shoehorn Tom Banks onto a wing, I can’t shake the nagging feeling of the obvious benefits Henry Speight would bring, both with the ball and over the ball.