AUCKLAND, NZ – After last weekend’s harrowing bye, in which thankfully no injuries were reported, the Rugby Championship will resume for its third and final round. For those just joining us, the Bledisloe Cup clash between the All Blacks and Wallabies will double as the competition decider, while Los Pumas and the Springboks will have a chance to bash each other up for a bit of fun. The Rugby World Cup clock is certainly starting to tick a little louder these days, both of these tests will be an interesting barometer as to where each side is at.
At ANZ Stadium, Sydney: Wallabies vs. All Blacks #AUSvNZL
Wallabies: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 David Pocock, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Stephen Moore (captain), 1 Scott Sio. Bench: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nic White, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Kurtley Beale
All Blacks: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Luke Romano, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock. Bench: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Samuel Whitelock, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
Hey, remember the Bledisloe Cup? If you’re a Wallabies fan, there’s a good chance you may not because the All Blacks have had it their possession for 12 freakin’ years. So you should probably know that this is the first of two tests to see if the Wallabies can change that. If there’s any consolation for the Aussies, that’s not even half of the actual record tenure of the All Blacks between 1951 and 1979. Back then they stopped even bothering awarding it at the end of matches, so when the 1979 Wallabies finally did win it, the All Blacks were surprised to see them parading around a trophy many of them had no idea they were playing for.
But that’s in the past and right now both teams are desperately want to have their hands on it at the end of this one. If the Wallabies do it’ll be sweet vindication for Michael Cheika for loading up his loose forwards with a great deal of mobility. He’s picked David Pocock at 8, meaning he can keep Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy on the field to harass the All Blacks at the breakdown. Bernard Foley gets the nod at first five and has hopefully been practicing his goal kicking, he’ll have Matt Giteau outside for his first test against the All Blacks in quite a while.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks have named a relatively full-strength lineup, the only new face being that of Hurricanes revelation Nehe Milner-Skudder on the right wing. That means Ben Smith gets a start at fullback, along with Julian Savea this would probably be the most exciting experimental back three in recent times. SBW comes in for the injured Ma’a Nonu and Luke Romano gets another chance to impress at lock, aside from that it’s the familiar faces that have been getting the job done for the past few years.
The big question mark over this one will be if the All Blacks try anything new gameplan-wise, as the Wallabies have certainly shown their intention with their loose forward selections. The home side’s timing better be perfect if they try and snaffle any ruck ball. Dan Carter’s boot has been back to its lethal best lately and the All Blacks probably wouldn’t mind winning this one in 3’s if they have to, given that’s most likely how the business end of the RWC will play out. Nevertheless, they’ll want to get Milner-Skudder and Savea involved early and often. On the other side, a healthy diet of Israel Folau will be key to any Wallaby victory aspirations.
Prediction: While the Wallabies showed their fight against the Boks and trounced Los Pumas, this one, like the Bledisloe Cup, will be out of their reach. All Blacks by 8.
At Kings Park, Durban: Springboks vs. Pumas #RSAvARG
Springboks: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Jean de Villiers (c), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Bench: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
Jean de Villiers returns to the green jumper for the first time since last year, he’s played a grand total of two games since he was injured in Cardiff. His selection means that the highly impressive Jesse Kriel moves out to the wing, but he’ll probably still get plenty of ball. Marcell Coetzee is also back after getting hurt against the Wallabies, it’ll be interesting to see how he combines with Schalk Burger and Heinrich Brussow in the loose forwards. A couple more injury returnees, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, will make their way back via the bench.
Los Pumas had not named their final side by the time I wrote this, but coach Daniel Hourcade has reacted strongly after their two garbage performances so far. First five Nicolas Sanchez has paid the price for his inability to kick, run or tackle effectively, getting himself dropped along with the entire loose trio of Javier Ortega Desio, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Facundo Isa, among others. This raft of changes isn’t exactly a pleasing sign for Pumas fans so close to the big show in a couple of months, they have the benefit of a handy draw in the RWC so should really be playing better than this.
On the bright side, the Union Argentina de Rugby have done something pretty damn cool by issuing retro jerseys for the match. They commemorate the ground-breaking 1965 Pumas who toured southern Africa, getting an upset win over the Junior Springboks at Ellis Park. Yes, that is a button up collar! Throwback uniforms are pretty rare in rugby, let’s hope Los Pumas initiative will inspire other clubs and national teams to follow suit.
Prediction: This should be another one-sided result, the Boks should at least salvage something from their pretty unlucky Rugby Championship campaign in 2015. Springboks by 20.
Confusingly, there’s another round of fixtures between these teams next weekend as well, but that’s not a part of The Rugby Championship. According to my predictions the All Blacks will be taking it out for the 13th time. What do you think?
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