The Rugby Championship is done for 2023, and Rugby World Cup preparations get ratcheted up that much further this week with the extra weekend of matches in the south hemisphere.
For all four teams, it’s the last chance to tweak combinations and game plans before heading to Europe for pre-RWC matches later this month.
That means for some teams, it’s all about fine-tuning and polishing this weekend. For others, and we’re obviously talking about Australia here, it’s about heightened desperation to get more things right than wrong first and foremost. Never mind gravy, or even a cherry on top, a win would be something like reaching Everest Base Camp at this point.
An achievement, certainly, but a long way still to go.
This week, a slightly different approach: I’m going to assign you a country to address two questions, as we take a bit of a look over the neighbour’s fence and see what they’ve got cooking – or perhaps not.
Digger – Australia; Geoff – Argentina; Harry – New Zealand; Nobes – Australia; Brett – South Africa
It’s hard to go past the Springboks’ depth at the moment, where in some positions it feels like they’re still pulling out world class options as fourth and fifth choice.
I’ve lost count how many bomb squads they have currently, and they genuinely have backrowers coming out of their ears. In a squad of 33, it’s scary to think about the backrow options that could miss out.
They can take it easy with Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, and slot RG Snyman and Marvin Orie seamlessly. I still don’t think the intent of the changes to eligibility laws was for now-former Ireland lock Jean Kleyn to switch back to his native South Africa, but you can’t blame the ‘Boks for working within the parameters.
Manie Libbok comes in with plenty of patience in his game, and suddenly it doesn’t matter that Handre Pollard is still in cotton wool. Hell, they just packed more cotton wool in around him and gave him another few weeks off.
Out wide, it’s an embarrassment of finishers: Makazole Mapimpi, Canan Moodie, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe, not to mention Makazole Mapimpi. Sometimes it’s like there’s multiple of him.
What I have noticed the most about Australia is the change of attitude through the last three matches.
From the first match against the Springboks where the side appeared a bit punch drunk, to their last against the All Blacks was very noticeable in terms of their physical and determined approach.
It was chalk and cheese.
Now, the results have not been as they would have desired and let’s face it, Eddie Jones and his charges have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it.
But at the very least, there is determination to work with and if they can fix up their defensive system in particular, I think they can put themselves in a position to give the World Cup a decent shake.
What stands out about Argentina is how suited Michael Cheika is to this particular coaching role, and how integral he is to their World Cup campaign.
I don’t propose for a moment to understand or explain the psyche of the Argentinian players, nor do I have any inside information, but it is evident that this is a united squad, playing for their coach and for each other, and in return, their coach is enjoying the experience of working for them.
Given that the Pumas were brought together after the end of the northern hemisphere club season, from outposts far and wide, a Rugby Championship comprising one win, one narrow loss and one more comprehensive loss to a very good All Blacks side, is a fair return.
Cheika seems to have struck a sweet balance between his emotional side and his rugby smarts, and clearly has his coaching and playing groups aligned.
They will be more than a handful at the World Cup and, on the better side of the draw, are a strong chance to make the semi-finals.
Watching New Zealand operate across three Tests, I was taken aback, and thus paused, by the increased aggression at the ruck, creating so many split second 50-50 decisions for the referees.
The only patch where they were on the back foot was against South Africa who fought fire with a fire bomb squad.
I reckon this is the Foster-Ryan-Schmidt plan to beat Ireland and it will work if… (see question two)
The Wallabies have not been able to run a good Rugby Championship for different reasons, but Eddie Jones cannot be judged alone as the culprit for the results on and off the field.
Most likely, the root of the evils comes from the people that are commanding Rugby Australia that need urgent results, and we all know that generating winning teams requires a certain amount of work time and it seems that Australian rugby does not have it.
There are these urgencies that lead Jones to make decisions in the selection of players who may not be ready and others who have already played their best days.
There are the same urgencies that lead the team to be penalised five times more with cards than the other participants in the tournament, and it is very difficult to play at this level with one less man. If you do not give points in those ten minutes you will probably give them later in the second half.
And the same urgencies mean that the type of game they develop is extremely exhausting in the physical aspect and they are overwhelmed in the second half by the opponents. These emergencies may influence the physical preparation of the players and may be an explanation of why there are so many injured players.
The Wallabies need time and at this point they know that they are not candidates for this World Cup in France, and they should be thinking about the following one and give young players experience in this one, thinking in the long term.
Jones, the specialised press, and the management should help to understand this process, since otherwise they will continue sacrificing coaches and players without obtaining positive results.
One Springbok immediately comes to mind for this question: the great Willie ‘Spiders’ le Roux.
And I’m going to argue he’s crucial to South Africa’s RWC defence not because he’s their best player (he is, no further correspondence necessary), but because he might just be the perfect barometer for how the Boks are going as a team and a squad.
When le Roux is on, the Boks are in a pretty good place and equally, if they have a rough night, ‘Spiders’ is often the target of criticisms, warranted or not.
I think he’s the barometer because he’s almost the antithesis of South African rugby. For all the structure and the prescription and the ‘everyone knows their role’ that they Boks play with, le Roux still seems to do whatever the hell he feels he needs to in that moment – and it just works. He’s the chaos that keeps the structures in place.
He’s getting better with age, too, which is interesting. Because he’s always been a very, very good player.
Carrying on from the point above, anything the great man does in France will just be gravy. Sweet, beautiful gravy.
I will cheat a little and nominate a specific ‘department’ if you will, and that would be at lock.
I rate the current squad members for the Wallabies. Will Skelton, Nick Frost, Matt Philip and Richie Arnold are an excellent mix and match of skillsets and size, and no side does well at a World Cup without the engine room firing.
If you were to choose one lock in particular from the four, I suppose most would suggest Skelton given his size and personal experience of playing in France, but I would suggest it is Frost that the Wallabies really need a purple patch of form from.
He has a great array of skills, he’s quick, can link and could provide a significant point of difference. If he has a tournament to remember, I suspect the Wallabies as a whole will too.
With Agustin Creevy seemingly on the scene for years, Julian Montoya served what felt like an extended apprenticeship. Now well and truly out of Creevy’s shadow, Montoya has proven himself to be a world-class hooker, as good as any at sniffing out a turnover, or a try-line from close range.
Commanding obvious respect from referees and opponents, his leadership is another plus. In a side packed with brute, physical force and fleet-footed backs, look for Montoya to be the glue that holds it all together.
…it will work if Shannon Frizzell can keep the grunt going for this Angry All Black vibe to work; and it all needs to be accurate, as well.
All the pretty horses can only run when the blindside is blindsiding foes and putting the hay in the barn.
If success means claiming the title, I will say nobody because as I explained in my other answer, success would be forming and giving experience to player that might be selected four years from now.
I am comfortable telling you that the two starting wingers – Marika Koroibete and Mark Nawaqanitawase – are the best attacking weapons the Wallabies have.
But the team needs freshness and need to develop a system that everyone understands.
First, pick a country other than your own – then, what’s one thing you’ve particularly noticed about that team this season?
And which player from that team appears crucial for RWC success?