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The Thursday rugby two-up: The Rugby Championship is here (somewhere)

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Expert
11th August, 2021
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Yes, the panel has been great already this international season, but there’s definitely been a certain South American flair missing among us, so it’s time to do something about it.

Please welcome back to the Thursday panel covert Los Pumas insider Nobes!

It’s great to have him back and indeed great to have the Argentinean side back on our shores again very soon.

Nobes tells me that things are looking up for him and that his business has continued, but there’s no question he’s had it a lot tougher than most of us over this past year. He’s spent large chunks of time isolated from his family and/or confined to home isolation.

While Australians are still – infuriatingly – taking some healthy liberties around what ‘lockdown’ actually means, Argentineans have needed a permit just to go to the doctor.

That there have been more than 100,000 Argentinean deaths certainly puts things on either side of the Tasman into perspective.

Rugby in Argentina has only just returned recently, and the Rugby Championship is here upon us again, though whether the current ‘here’ is anywhere near the final ‘here’ certainly remains to be seen.

We know Argentina will take on the Springboks in Port Elizabeth over the next two weekends, and at the same time New Zealand and Australia will face off in Auckland and Perth.

After that? Well, Australia somewhere, but where remains anyone’s guess for the moment.

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Question 1: For our respective teams, what’s the goal for the Rugby Championship and where do you think they can genuinely finish?

Nobes
What a pleasure to be back on this glorious page surrounded by an exquisite panel and great commentators.

Los Pumas are used to playing as underdogs, and this will not be an exception. Two quarantines, many more air miles than the rest and no previous matches like the other three competitors is a big mountain to climb.

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Any position other than last will be a great achievement, and the reality is that they can be the ones who decide the tournament with the results and bonus points when they play against the three others.

This first game against the world champions may be important, as the Springboks may be celebrating the series against the Lions too much, and a fresh team doing the right thing can come and surprise the champions at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

The Pumas have a huge loss, Tomas Cubelli, who will not be a part of the Rugby Championship due to injury, but on the plus side of the equation they’ve added four players to the tour who have just won the bronze medal at the Olympics.

More than results, I hope to see a competitive team taking into account the powers they face. For Game 1 expect them to do the opposite Warren Gatland planned for the Lions: avoid the frontal contact, use more channel three, speed the ball from rucks and take the three points every chance they have.

I think Mario Ledesma will start the most physical front eight and fastest backs available, and Gonzalo Bertranou will take the place of Cubelli. Other absences are Agustin Creevy, Juan Imhoff, and Benjamin Urdapilleta for personal reasons.

We are going to see a new rule in the rucks that will not favour the Boks game, and I hope the referee make this call that will help Los Pumas attempt for more turnovers in their favour. Playing the Springboks at their turf, as the current world champs, after winning the series against the Lions must be like climbing Everest without oxygen in the middle of a storm, but it is the type of challenge that Los Pumas and Mario Ledesma love to take.

The Pumas stand in a line for the anthem

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Brett
All four teams will head into the tournament with the goal to win it, and that goal becomes tougher to attain for two of the teams over these next two games.

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And yeah, the Wallabies are quite likely one of these two teams, which makes the return Auckland Bledisloe and the hopeful decider in Perth all the more crucial. Because if the Wallabies can regain the Bledisloe Cup over the next two games, then they will absolutely believe they can win the whole thing. And that should be the goal.

Realistically, and regardless of the next two results, I’d still like to hope Australia can finish in the top two. Yes, the COVID situation has again created it, but they do have the distinct advantage of playing five of their six games on home soil. New Zealand won’t even have that. They have to take that advantage and make the most of it.

Four wins from six games should be enough to claim a top-two finish. We’ll find out by the first week of October if the Wallabies are good enough to do it.

Digger
For the All Blacks, I have no doubt their goal will be to win it, and I genuinely believe they can do so.

Certainly I believe they have the attacking talent to trouble all of their opposition in this tournament and have a few defensive coaches scrambling for plans, but I also have my reservations, particularly up front, where I have doubts around the current depth and the strategies being employed, predominantly around the desired structure of the loose forward make-up.

My fear is a few key injuries, particularly in the second row, and continued confusion around the loosie mix spells trouble against stifling opposition such as the Springboks and may leave far too much in the hands of lady luck, such as relying on opposition errors and individual brilliance.

Ardie Savea

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Harry
South Africa should win the Rugby Championship. The Springboks defence (attacking the attack) has developed into one of the more potent weapons in world rugby. The players and coaches and water carriers and physios are all on the same page. Pressure.

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Missed tackles aren’t even a stat Boks track. Did you fly up far enough? Did you make him stop, step? Yes? Then your mate will smash him. Pressure upfield. Get up. Counter. Be ready to flip the switch but keep the score ticking.

So this should work against Argentina and Australia, who crave a bit more structure. But New Zealand can play in milliseconds and don’t panic as easily. The thing is, I believe the forward ranks of the All Blacks are not as deep as the Boks, especially if Rudolph Snyman’s skin graft works and Pieter-Steph du Toit returns with his mate Thor, Duane Vermeulen. The Boks backline is very settled, with Damian de Allende world-class and the wings deadly, so the All Black backline advantage has narrowed, even if Lukhanyo Am has only 17 caps and Handre Pollard is in his prime.

Only a first place will do, and I’d say the Boks are co-favourites.

Geoff
New Zealand first, and their single goal and realistic objective is to win it.

Given all sides have question marks around them, it may well be that five wins will be enough, and the All Blacks appeal as being the most likely to achieve that while adding enough bonus points along the way.

Should that not happen, the noise and clamour around Ian Foster will be intolerable. To avoid all of that, Foster needs to settle on a loose forward combination and get them working as a unit, and ensure that all of his front-row options match up to the heat that will no doubt be coming from the Springboks.

Australia’s goal is the same. Of course they will genuinely believe they can win, although their odds are unsurprisingly higher. Four wins are possible, but getting three s more likely, which would represent a tidy advance on last year.

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Question 2: And the Lions Series is done for another four years – but what do you think the lasting memory of this series will be, and where will the 2021 tour rate among those of the past?

Nobes
Regarding the Lions tour, I think it’s a shame Warren Gatland has planned such tight rugby despite having at his disposal most of the best players in Europe. It’s understandable that the Springboks played the rugby they did after the lack of competition in the last year.

Rassie Erasmus must have looked at what he had and would have seen that he had very powerful players physically and some players with very good use of the foot. He exploited those facets and added a fearsome defence with a double tackle. They slowed down of the ball in the rucks and they won the series.

On the other side, those in red could not break the green wall since they wanted to match the physical strength up front, which is impossible against those from South Africa. Due to their own lack of skill – and credit to the Springboks – they were never able to open up the game. Despite several decisions on the turf not to go for three points when they had multiple opportunities to do so, they nearly tied the series.

Unfortunately for me these series will be remembered more for what happened off the field than for the effective play, though it wasn’t the type of rugby I like to watch. I am looking forward to seeing this Boks team playing against the All Blacks.

Brett
Funnily enough, I think the memory of this Lions series is likely to improve over time mainly because it will be quickly forgotten in these parts as the focus turns immediately to the Rugby Championship.

But in time – and more so if the waterboy gets his dues this week – the actual rugby will be remembered for what it was, which was a bloody tough series! Both teams won Tests by managing to play more rugby on the night, and then Morne Steyn came on wearing his 2009 jersey and repeated the deed just for, well, lolz.

We tend to remember the most recent tours of our own countries the most fondly, which is fair enough, so it’s not really for me to decide whether 2009 produced better rugby in South Africa. But that would be my decision.

Anthony Watson of the British & Irish Lions is tackled

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Digger
Unfortunately this series will not be remembered fondly for the on-field play but more the challenges faced off the field and the personalities involved, again unfortunately for negative reasons. And that’s before we consider the officiating, particularly in the third Test, which was excruciating to watch – though to be fair I may have simply been a bit cranky at 4am.

While I personally was not as down about the quality of play as a few commentators – I don’t mind a good bash-them-up now and then – it was at times a frustrating series to take in, particularly given the talent available to both sides, but that is just one man’s opinion.

I cannot say it will live long in the memory for me as far as Lions series go, with the second Test in Wellington 2005 very high up on my list of favourite events.

In terms of the best series during my time, it’s hard to go past the 2001 Australian tour, certainly in terms of three high-quality Test matches. That would have my vote.

Harry
The 2021 Lions tour will be remembered as a COVID-era trial but also as Warren Gatland’s swan song, in which he and Gregor Townsend failed to find the outside edge of the Boks defence.

It will also be the moment the world learnt Rassie is no teddy bear – unless the teddy bear is a mad live grizzly. Finally, I think, the remarkable story of a gunslinger named Morne Steyn, who scuffed and shinned two crucial kicks over the poles, 12 years after that kick.

The chat about the series being dour is ahistorical. Lions series are rough. In 2017 the All Blacks scored 66 points – compared to 63 points by the undercooked Boks in 2021 – and conceded 54 points (SA conceded 47 points). So the average margin in 2017 was 22-18, and the margin in 2017 was 21-16. This series will be remembered more for the ferocity in an empty stadium with coaches fighting for their legacies.

Damian Willemse

(Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Geoff
I really wanted the lasting memory of this series to be the kick hoisted by Faf de Klerk in the 32nd minute of the second Test. One of a hundred box kicks across the series, this was a standout, not just in terms of its execution but because of how much the game needed it. A kick for the ages.

Unfortunately, however, the lasting memory is yet to be determined. If Rassie is found guilty and sanctioned, in the eyes of Boks fans he will be martyred, and the proverbial will hit the fan.

Should World Rugby blink and opt for either a limp lettuce leaf or wet bus ticket with which to caress Rassie’s wrist, then the series will be remembered as the time it became acceptable to cross the line from gamesmanship into abuse of referees, never mind the cost to the soul and integrity of rugby.

While there was some good rugby played and the Springboks’ suffocating defence is a wonder to behold, this was not a series that will rank among the best.

Over to you

Where will your team finish in this year’s Rugby Championship? And where will this Lions series sit in the memory from here?

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