AUCKLAND, NZ – Should I make another joke about the crappiness of the name of this tournament? No, it’s getting old. On the menu this week is possibly the biggest clash on the calendar outside of the World Cup final between the Springboks and All Blacks, while the resurgent Wallabies travel to Argentina to avenge their loss to Los Pumas last season. Before we have a look at those fixtures, there’s been a bit happening this week off the pitch:
Quade Cooper has joined Waisake Naholo in saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to a French club contract. He’s backflipped on a deal with mega-rich Toulon to re-sign with the ARU and potentially play Sevens at the Olympics next year. Toulon owner and known hothead Mourad Boudjellal is understandably pissed, demanding millions in compensation and probably uttering more than a few untranslatable Gallic profanities. The ARU aren’t exactly in his good books anyway, relaxing their selection rules to allow Toulon players Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to get back in a Wallaby jersey.
Things are looking murky for a couple of Super Rugby’s expansion teams, with the South Africa’s Kings franchise sacking their assistant coach, former All Black Carlos Spencer. One of his parting shots was that they ‘owe me heaps of money’. Meanwhile, news out of the Japanese franchise is hardly encouraging either – mainly because there hasn’t been any. No name, no players and no stadium for a side that’s going to be playing Super Rugby in less than seven months? Hmmm.
The All Blacks pride themselves on excellence, so it was highly surprising and hilarious to see their PR department fail so miserably earlier this week. Their official website put up a match report so gushing with praise and flowery language it was hard to take seriously, which almost no one did. Except a few leading rugby journalists, that is, who took the opportunity to lampoon the website so hard the story was taken down. Which is a bit of a shame, because this face-palm inducing masterpiece of unintentional comedy really deserves to be seen. If there was ever going to be a 50 Shades of All Blacks novel, at least we know there’s someone out there who could do it justice.
The Rugby Championship Round Two Fixtures:
At Ellis Park, Johannesburg: Springboks vs. All Blacks #RSAvNZL
Springboks: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Bench: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Warren Whiteley, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Cornal Hendricks.
All Blacks: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messsam, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock. Bench: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Victor Vito, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa
Can the Springboks and All Blacks make it a triumvirate of classic Ellis Park encounters in the last three seasons? The last two tests between the two sides at the iconic venue certainly lived up to their billing, the visitors coming out on top in easily the best test of their unbeaten 2013 season, while the home team handed the All Blacks their only loss in almost two seasons last year. Both tests were played in a highly entertaining manner, which is fitting given the massive abundance of talent on both sides.
Speaking of both sides, the Boks have picked both Heinrich Brussow and Francois Louw at flanker. Both men are specialist opensides, so that clearly signals the Boks’ intention of nullifying the threat of quick ball to the All Black backs. This may hinder them at lineout time, however. Neither will probably be used in a jumping role and they’ve also lost Victor Matfield to injury, so that cuts down their options. Brussow definitely brings something unique to the team in his first international in almost four years, though – he’s never lost a test to the All Blacks.
Two new names are in the All Blacks, Canes lock James Broadhurst and Highlanders first five Lima Sopoaga will make their debuts in the Ellis Park cauldron. For Broadhurst, it’s rich reward for his breakout Super Rugby season. His abrasive tight work will compliment Brodie Retallick’s all-round game and he’s no slouch in the open anyway. Sopoaga’s call up is no surprise really, his last two seasons have defined the word ‘consistency’ in the now-champion Highlanders backline.
One big question mark will be over how the Boks approach this one, will they run it from all over the park like they did to great success last year? It certainly worked for them for the first 70 minutes last week as well against the Wallabies, before Heyneke Meyer made a very odd decision to substitute all of their best players. Historically, the Boks often retreat back into their defensive kicking game when they’ve had a loss, but that’s a tactic that hasn’t worked against the All Blacks for a long, long time.
Meanwhile, the All Black forwards will want to give Sopoaga as much of an armchair ride as possible. He’s got the luxury of having his Highlanders team mate Aaron Smith inside him and the world-record holding centre pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith outside, so if he gets good ball he won’t need to worry too much about anything other than following the game plan.
Prediction: I don’t think this will reach the great heights of the last two Ellis Park tests, but it’ll be a tight affair nonetheless. All Blacks by 6.
At Estadio Malvinas, Mendoza: Pumas vs. Wallabies #ARGvAUS
Pumas: 15 Santiago Cordero, 14 Gonzalo Camacho, 13 Matías Moroni, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Javier Ortega Desio, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Marcos Ayerza. Bench: 16 Santiago Iglesias Valdez, 17 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 18 Matías Díaz, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Leonardo Senatore, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Lucas González Amorosino.
Wallabies: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 James Slipper. Bench: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Dean Mumm, 20 Michael Hooper, 21 Nic White, 22 Quade Cooper, 23 Kurtley Beale.
Michael Cheika has made a bunch of changes to his team that pulled a Houdini act last weekend against the Boks, but these were probably pre-planned rather than on form. The big call was the swapping of Michael Hooper for David Pocock, while the Aussies will lose nothing in that department, it must have been a temptation to try what the Boks are experimenting and start both. Nick Phipps takes over at halfback for Will Genia while Bernard Foley swaps out with Quade Cooper at first five. Matt Toomua gets a reward for his starring role last week with a start at second five.
The home side have resisted the urge to drop Nicolas Sanchez, who had a shocker last week, but have made the interesting decision to change everyone else around him (reports that coach Daniel Hourcade is actually Sanchez’s dad are still yet to be confirmed). Martin Landajo starts at halfback while Matias Moroni and Juan Pablo Socino are the centre pairing. The back three of Santiago Cordero, Juan Imhoff and Gonzalo Camacho will be praying that they don’t have to stand around watching their forwards practice their scrummaging for 80 minutes like last week.
The Wallabies are in a much better place than the last time they went to Mendoza, in which they bumbled their way to a four point loss. This backline could potentially carve up the home team, if Los Pumas can manage to keep the ball away from Israel Folau then that’d be a good start. The home team will be looking to target the Wallabies’ front row and lineout, which could be best described as flaky and shaky respectively.
Prediction: The Wallabies finished strong last week and Los Pumas just looked mud, so it’ll be the Wallabies by 18.
Even though the Boks/All Blacks game is as big as it comes, it’s still very evident that all the teams are simply using these games as chance to try different combinations before the Rugby World Cup starts. The All Blacks did lose to to the Boks in a 2011 Rugby Championship test that no one really remembers (even though it had a massive bearing on the responsibilities of the TMO long term), but hopefully this one won’t be as forgettable.
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