We’re two weeks into the International season in the south, and already it’s clear players are putting their hands up across the board as the Rugby World Cup edges ever closer.
Who exactly? Well, it’s time to name some names.
The first two rounds of The Rugby Championship have produced some genuinely great rugby over the last fortnight, and there was something cool about having the two games back-to-back so closely like was the case on the weekend, jumping from Auckland to Sydney.
And within that great rugby, some RWC tickets have well and truly been booked on the back of two performances.
So, who are the stars already catching our eyes?
With respect to South Africa and Argentina, I haven’t been blown away by anyone.
But the player who has impressed me the most is the silky spider himself, Willie le Roux.
Cue all the cliches about a fine red wine, improving with age, Willie’s passing and kicking has been world class.
A couple of those pure left-foot exits last weekend had me convinced that Mt Smart Stadium was on the high veldt.
Few Wallabies have had a tougher tandem of first Tests than Carter Gordon.
He survived the cauldron of Loftus Versfeld with fewer burns than any of his teammates, even manufacturing a lovely try a minute after being folded like a fresh hotel towel.
The next week, he was dropped early into another pressure cooker at a position he had never held, with overseas players on either side. He dropped back on kicks, as well, turning him into a proto-wing at times.
In a dismal tournament for the Wallabies thus far, Gordon is the flash, a bright, bold, brash, brave lad.
The All Blacks are in another dimension now while the other three teams are in another part of their preparation for September’s World Cup in France. The Pumas and Springboks in a similar facet since most of their players come from different teams in the northern hemisphere, or participate in tournaments that are played with European teams.
Many players have had to rest and began their training sessions later and in the case of Los Pumas they have not been able to count on all the players available up to now and just starting this coming Friday they will all be available. The Wallabies for their part had a large number of injured players they’ve been able to gradually incorporate but these players are still out of the ideal rhythm for an international competition of the Championship calibre.
The players that impressed me the most are those from New Zealand. I think Shannon Frizell played a game at an exceptional level last weekend and the quality that Will Jordan brings to the team makes him an indispensable player for the All Blacks to upgrade the attacking game.
But both have only played one game so far and it seems fairer to judge those who have already played two games and the one I liked the most was Jordie Barrett. He looked better in Mendoza but his level did not drop against the Boks where he faced the two centres that are probably the best pair of centres at the moment, I’m talking about Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am.
South African flyhalf Manie Libbok has timed his run perfectly.
His game has come a long way since debuting for the Bulls fresh out of school, now adding new elements to both the Stormers and Springboks in much the same way Damien Willemse did before. Libbok looks well in control of his game, kicks well, and just plays with time with ball in hand.
Whether he’s displaced Willemse in the no.10 pecking order remains to be seen, but I’m quite sure he’s given Rassie enough of a selection headache that Jacques Nienaber might even get a chance to have a say.
The player who has stood out to me is Mark Nawaqanitawase.
His form last Saturday was quite outstanding and he has come a long way in the last few seasons to surely now be the incumbent right wing for the Wallabies, and I can only see him getting better from here.
Marika Koroibete is also worth a shout, I admire his attitude as a player that is always giving 100% effort, if you could bottle his effort and sell it one would make a fortune. Stick Andrew Kellaway into the mix at fullback and the Wallabies have a high quality back three.
A couple of obvious ones here; Shannon Frizell for the All Blacks, and Carter Gordon for the Wallabies.
Looking to cast the net wider, I’d single out Finlay Christie for his willing defence, and Andrew Kellaway for the good fortune of having sat out the first two matches and having his reputation enhanced as a result.
Most of the Springbok 23 for 2023’s big dance was known long ago, health permitting, with three exceptions: third scrumhalf, last two loosies and backup ten.
Grant Williams and Cobus Reinach are in a straight shootout at No. 9, and Duane Vermeulen is hanging on to his dream of a third Cup.
But it is Manie Libbok who seems to have resigned Elton Jantjies to the past.
With Handre Pollard’s 84 percent (21/25) kicking percentage last year, long exits, accurate pokes to the corner, and calm field management being more obviously valuable in his absence, Libbok’s proper flyhalf credentials appeal more than those of mavericks Damian Willemse and Willie le Roux (both nailed on as fullback utilities).
Or as Grant Nisbett would call them all: Makazole Mapimpi.
As previously stated, Los Pumas have not been able to count on all their players. To mention a few, Marcos Kremer suspended and Santiago Chocobares, Juan Cruz Mallía, Guido Petty and Juan Imhoff missing, all players who normally played regularly.
This situation has opened space to players who generally do not have many minutes, as well as trying players in different positions – Emiliano Boffelli at full back, Lucio Cinti at centre, Juan Gonzalez at no.8 are some examples.
Will Skelton was always going to the RWC, but it’s been these last two weekends that have seen him play probably his best minutes in a Wallabies jersey to the point of him probably being one of the first picked now.
He’s got through a lot of work in defence especially – all the Wallabies have, such is their current devotion to a low possession game plan – has got through mauls effectively even if not recognised as such on occasion, and even won some lineout ball.
If he can start getting some ball to carry, his repatriation to the national team will be properly justified.
I am not sure he was in danger of not going but certainly Shannon Frizell has gone a long way to becoming the first choice blindside for the All Blacks with his performance against the Springboks.
There is no better side to front up against as a forward and with Ethan Blackadder to hopefully return and Luke Jacobsen yet to show his wares this season the loose is shaping up nicely depth wise come the World Cup.
For the All Blacks, Tupou Vaa’i, who has Josh Lord breathing down his neck.
For the Wallabies, if Jordie Uelese isn’t putting 30 minutes extra throwing in after each training session, he’s in serious trouble.
The non-Marxist hookers have to be better.
Malcolm is still the best two or three Boks every time he is on the pitch. But Joseph Dweba and Bongi Mbonambi are both struggling to hit giants the size of a barn door. Both had poor throwing seasons in the URC.
Fixing this facet immediately improves the Boks into contenders. If it remains, an early exit beckons.
There are positions where there are plenty of players who are at a good level and others where Los Pumas are very tight. But the wing position is one where there are many and the competition to be part of the 33 that will go to France is high-flying.
Imhoff, Boffelli, Mallía, Bautista Delguy, Santiago Cordero, Sebastian Canceliere, and the incorporation of Rodrigo Isgró from Sevens and who played a very good game against the Wallabies, are some of the candidates.
Among them is Mateo Carreras who, judging by the two games he played in the Rugby Championship, has won the ticket to France due to the high level he has been showing. He is a “mini C. Clarke” with better defence and better concentration.
I was definitely thinking of Uelese here as well, until I dropped Geoff’s answer in, and now there’s a bit of last minute scrambling to be done.
And it’s probably someone like Matt Gibbon, who hasn’t done anything particularly wrong in 2023 and is even coming off maybe his best season of Super Rugby.
But with Angus Bell showing his worth in 20 minutes, and Eddie Jones fond of shiny new Blake Schoupp-shaped things, Gibbon could find himself standing without a chair when the music stops.
I would nominate Caleb Clarke.
He does not offer the same versatility as the other wide options within the All Blacks and I would suggest his defence and ability under the high ball would also be behind the other options as well. If Lester Fainga’anuku can overcome his injury and given his ability to cover midfield and recent form, he could well be the preferred ‘power’ option out wide.
I suggest Clarke will be a little nervous about where he is sitting right now.
Which opposition player has caught your eye in the opening TRC rounds??
Which player from your team has now comfortably booked their RWC ticket?
And who’s got some serious work to do?