Yes, it’s time to hang up the tipping panel for another year, and the arrival of the international season brings with it the return of the two-up double-question format every Thursday.
Some really enticing July series have arrived, with the might of the Six Nations making their annual trip south attempting to put the southern hemisphere nations back in their place.
With some good showings and a bit of luck, they should all return with their tails between their legs.
Wales are in South Africa, England are in Australia, Ireland are in New Zealand, Scotland are in Argentina, France are in Japan, and Italy… well, we love Italy.
After a couple of relatively quiet weeks, and all of us earning brownie points at home on the rugby-free weekend just gone, it’s time to get comfortable and into Test match rugby again. I can’t wait, you all can’t wait.
The two-up format remains untouched from 2021: a couple of timely questions for the guys, and with their insights and observations forthcoming across the respective series.
Let’s rip in.
For our respective nations, what most concerns us about our teams heading into this important series? What makes you nervous ahead of this weekend’s first Tests?
Nothing at all concerns me except for how we will perform in all the key skill positions. That’s all of them: 10, 15 and hooker.
The Springbok locks are absolutely atomic and there are malicious and clever loosies for days. The midfield can read each other’s mind and the wings are as tricky and quick as anyone, even Wales, can muster.
But our starting flyhalf has been a backup or at 12 for Montpellier when he finally found health: I have faith in Handre ‘Polly’ Pollard but his duels with Dan Biggar have been crackers (yes, I was trying to work in ‘Polly wants a cracker’).
Will we rue Willie le Roux? And will Faf de Klerk faff away the ball too much?
But my biggest concern is lineout throwing. Wales have two very good thieves.
Oh, certainly the Wallabies setpiece, and more specifically the scrum. There was a chink in the English scrum armour when Kyle Sinckler was ruled out of the tour, but now that Taniela Tupou almost certainly won’t be named, the contest feels square again.
But worse, the injuries are mounting among Ausie forwards and with tighthead props particularly cursed at the moment, we’re about to see a lot of pressure on the shoulders of James Slipper. It’s a huge ask that he switches to the tight, and so the ability of Allan Ala’alatoa to play deep into the game is going to be crucial.
Thankfully, the locking stocks remain in good health, and it feels like there’s a pretty strong combination to be found no matter which way the cards fall.
A well-performed lineout and maul is going to be equally crucial this series, and so on that front it’s heartening to hear Dan McKellar talking about setting themselves the benchmark of developing the best maul in the world.
But first, they just have to be better than England this weekend, even if just by a bit. Scrum well, maul well, accurate at lineout time, and the forwards in gold will give the team a strong chance to win.
For myself and the All Blacks, most certainly the setpiece is of concern.
I worry about our lineout in particular, as I have reservations about the loose forward mix and Ireland may be able to pick us apart in that face. After the Super Rugby final, the importance of the lineout certainly should not be understated, though it can’t be quite as bad as what the Blues managed that night.
After last season I am also worried about our strategy and in particular our breakdown focus (or more pertinently lack of) and fear the Irish may dominate that area.
We wait to see the side selected but I am unconvinced, again around the loosies, that we have the right troops for the battle.
Oh, and the whole COVID thing is not ideal either.
I have two major concerns for the All Blacks. One revolves around the props; at scrum and also what they can bring around the park. There are impressive young bucks lurking, with an eye to next year’s World Cup, so the acid is on all four selected to provide a solid setpiece and match the mobility that Ireland will bring.
The other concern is what happens if the flow of the game goes against New Zealand and they’re unable to generate fast ball. A common factor in almost all of their recent losses is a stubbornness to keep believing in their ability to generate magic, under pressure, ten metres behind the advantage line.
Ireland are too smart and too efficient to allow that to happen.
I don’t actually have many concerns for Australia. This feels like a free shot, first match of the season, a chance to go out and play aggressively without fear or favour.
Perhaps the second row is a question mark against a side like England, but I’m happy to provide a free pass first-up and see how things roll.
Everyone is unbeaten before the first international of the season – so what are your series prediction and expectations for your respective nations?
A greenwash is the only acceptable result in a long rivalry which has never been even. Wales has never won in South Africa.
Yes, they can put a tough XV out there with George North, Liam Williams, Biggar, Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau, and young Will Rowlands of particular note. But the last 20 minutes of each Test will be tough for them and the Springboks have a hell of a bench, no matter who they start.
Three Test-quality props on both sides, four great locks, and with Duane Vermeulen out, No.8 could be filled by bully-boy Marcell Coetzee or super athletes Evan Roos (the URC king) or ripping Elrigh Louw.
The only areas where Wales have an edge is at 10, where Biggar has been in top form while Pollard has been dormant, and at 15, because Williams is a better rugby player than le Roux at this point in their long careers.
Australia can win 2-1, but they’re welcome to prove me wrong and win all three Tests.
Starting well this weekend, as mentioned above, has to be the highest priority, and while talk of an ambush is far-fetched in a bilateral series, it does kind of feel like the first Test is a real opportunity for the Wallabies to strike.
And if they can do that, then the pressure only ramps up on the Poms – both what they will encounter here in Australia, but especially from the English and British press, who it feels are sitting above their typewriters, wrists cocked and fingers poised, to deliver yet more scathing Eddie Jones critique.
Australia don’t want to be chasing the series from behind though, because that gives Jones the platform from which he does his best work: back still to the wall, but now with added confidence.
“The pressure’s not on me, mate,” he’ll say at the first opportunity and then proceed to divert all the criticisms about his coaching and his team straight onto Dave Rennie and his charges.
Scrum well, maul well, accurate lineout, win the first Test, and then go on with the job. Please and thank you.
My expectation, as unfair as it is, is an All Black clean sweep.
We have our challenges, but at home and with the Irish at the tail-end of their season, we should get this done and certainly history would suggest this is likely.
Make no mistake though, this is a quality Irish side with reasonable form, so it certainly wouldn’t be a huge surprise for them to tip New Zealand over.
But with the pressure the Kiwiws are under and some poor returns in recent seasons, they will pull through, if only by virtue of having more individual attacking threats.
Both feel like 2-1 series.
Throwing world rankings, selection, injury, early season/late season and the usual tension associated with these series into the mix, there’s not a lot between both sets of combatants.
With Ireland yet to break their duck in New Zealand I’m not ready to say they’ll win two. So that makes it a hard-fought series win to the All Blacks.
There’s no reason at all why the home side can’t win this series.
Taniela Tupou is clearly a huge loss, but the team entered camp this year well advanced on last year in terms of cohesion and familiarity with Rennie’s game plan, and should be raring to go.
At this level, nothing comes easy, particularly when England is involved, but I’ll be disappointed with anything less than a 2-1 series win to the home side.
What concerns you about your team ahead of this weekend’s first Tests of the international season?
And what’s your series prediction for your nation’s July Tests?