Eyes On: New Zealand v Australia – Bledisloe Cup Game 2

Eyes On: New Zealand v Australia – Bledisloe Cup Game 2

With the shorter Rugby Championship over for another season, we had the reverse of last weekend’s fixtures begin with Australia’s trip to Eden Park. Last week, the Wallabies dominated 14-man New Zealand, but the All Blacks had made some changes for this match and looked much more dangerous from the off, taking an early lead through the boot of Richie Mo’unga. While Australia worked their way into the game, an errant display off the tee from Christian Leali’ifano kept them scoreless, while New Zealand scored 2 quick tries through Mo’unga and Aaron Smith for a 17-0 halftime lead. It was more of the same after the break as New Zealand kept Australia scoreless while scoring a further 3 tries themselves on the way to a 36-0 victory.

New Zealand

Back when South Africa beat New Zealand in the 2018 Rugby Championship, I suggested that the All Blacks needed to become more pragmatic and be willing to kick the points. In this match, we saw a different side of the team, and they looked so much better for it. While they were willing to put points on the board by kicking penalties rather than going for the corner, Richie Mo’unga – who looked more comfortable at 10 this week – was happy to put the ball in behind the Wallabies defensive line, with some of his kicks to the corner causing Australia real problems. They even almost got a try off one of these kicks as it held up just metres from the line and forced Reece Hodge to play the ball under pressure. The kicking game did not give the Wallabies a chance to counter and did a great ob of keeping the momentum with the men in black.

This is not to say that the All Blacks didn’t use their back line and still attack in the usual way. They did plenty of that too – to great effect – but the important thing was that between the forwards making hard yards (most notably Ardie Savea), the backs cutting through the defence and a strong kicking game, the All Blacks had the right balance that suddenly makes them look much more dangerous again with the World Cup just around the corner.

Australia

Last week, Australia were on fire, they looked like they were fighting for their lives and looked dominant. This week, it was not an awful performance, but the errors crept back in. Too many balls went to floor, most notably when an Australia attack was ended by a Reece Hodge drop that was picked up by Mo’unga and ran back for the opening try. While the pass dropped low to make it a difficult catch, Hodge was too flat and being just a couple of steps further back would have allowed him to take the ball and continue the attack, potentially changing the shape of the game. If Australia can cut out the errors and do the basics right, they look a very dangerous team.

More than that though, they also need to cut out the stupid penalties. Jaco Peyper was very kind to them today as he twice allowed them to get away with taking out New Zealand players well beyond the ruck, while he also gave just a scrum after Izack Rodda knocked on and a teammate picked the ball up from a clearly offside position. Despite this, they still gave away 9 penalties… too many for a side that wants to win the big matches. The Wallabies really need to sort out their discipline if they want to make it past the World Cup quarterfinals.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Usually I try to stick to 2 players from each team in this section, but today I felt that I needed to take a moment to mention 4 All Blacks. Whether they were dropped or just rested as Steve Hansen looks at his options, Owen Franks, Ben Smith and Reiko Ioane will have been worried about their starting spots watching the great performances of Nepo LaulalaSevu Reece and George Bridge. In the absence of Scott Barrett and Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu put in a strong performance – including muscling Kurtley Beale back over the All Blacks try line in the first half – and surely confirmed his spot as the fourth choice lock – assuming Retallick is fit. Moving over to the Wallabies, Tolu Latu had another strong performance that included a very smart kick downfield and I think he may be securing the starting hooking spot, while Taniela Tupou did a good job of helping solidify the scrum following Allan Alaalatoa’s injury.

Moving onto the players who will be a little more nervous, Ben Franks may be a risk of missing the cut following the performances of Laulala and replacement Angus Ta’avao, while Jack Maddocks looks like he has fallen behind Adam Ashley-Cooper in the pecking order. Of those who were actually involved in the match, Richie Mo’unga ha a strong game but will be hoping a shoulder injury is not too serious, while Kurtley Beale may find his spot in the staring XV at risk after a game where he struggled under the high ball, though I imagine he will still be in the squad due to his experience and versatility.


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RWC2019: Predicting the New Zealand Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the New Zealand Squad

With the shortened version of the Rugby Championship over, the attention of rugby fans will now be turning to the upcoming World Cup. Though it is hard to believe it has been almost 4 years since the All Blacks lifted the trophy in London, we are just a matter of weeks away from the deadline for teams to name their squads for the tournament.

Having won the World Cup at home in 2011, the All Blacks became the first nation to ever defend their title when they won again in 2015, becoming the first team to win the tournament 3 times. Now, having been ranked #1 in the world since late 2009, the All Blacks have the chance of the first “three-peat” in Rugby World Cup history. Having coached New Zealand since 2004 first as an assistant coach and then from 2012 as head coach, this will be Steve Hansen’s last World Cup with the team as he will standing down after the tournament, so it’s safe to imagine that he will want to go out on a high, though some people will surely be wondering if that is possible after a less than stellar Rugby Championship campaign.

As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series with predictions of each 31-man squad for the Rugby Championship teams, and today we will be looking at the All Blacks. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, but I have also looked at some notable names who have been selected for the Maori All Blacks or not included in either squad but could come into consideration. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Steve Hansen will take.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I predict that Steve Hansen’s 31-man squad for the World Cup will be:

Hooker

New Zealand regularly take 3 hookers to the tournament and considering the injury history of Dane Coles over recent years, I expect that trend to continue here as he is too good to leave out, but precautions must be taken. Codie Taylor has done a great job in Coles’ absence to the point that I wouldn’t be wholly surprised to see him given the starting shirt. As for the 3rd hooker, things become more difficult. Nathan Harris and Ash Dixon look to be out of luck after being assigned to the Maori All Blacks this summer. I initially thought that Asafo Aumua would get the nod as they begin to look to the future, but I now believe that it will be Liam Coltman who goes to Japan, as he has been the next man up during the Rugby Championship.

Prop

For the rest of the front row, I will not be looking beyond the Rugby Championship squad due to the importance of scrums in the international game. The Crusaders pair of Owen Franks and Joe Moody have become regulars when available. Karl Tu’inukuafe was one of the breakout internationals last season but appears to have fallen out of favour this season and would likely require injuries ahead of him in order to make it to the tournament. Ofa Tu’ungafasi will travel to provide cover for Moody, while Nepo Laulala will provide cover for Franks. For the final spot, I will go for Angus Ta’avao, as Franks appeared to struggle in the first Bledisloe match so may not have the starting spot as secured as he would have hoped.

Second Row

The first 3 names in the All Blacks second row corps pick themselves. Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are one of the best lock pairings in World Rugby, while Scott Barrett can easily come in with no real drop off in quality. However due to Barrett’s ability to play in the back row, I expect Steve Hansen to also pick one more. While Jackson Hemopo also provides cover for the back row, I think that the spot is more likely to be filled by Patrick Tuipulotu, who has more experience at this level. The big question here though is on Retallick’s fitness after he left the South Africa match with a dislocated shoulder. If he’s fit, then he travels. If there is any delay in his recovery, however, I expect Hemopo to take the spot that opens up.

Back Row

Captain Kieran Read is the obvious selection here, while Sam Cane and Ardie Savea will surely both travel to compete for the 7 jersey – or potentially even play together as a 6/7 combination. For the final 2 spots, things get harder to judge. Akira Ioane is a talented player but with Savea able to cover 8 and Kirean Read there, he is still stuck with the Maori All Blacks and likely won’t be capped until after the tournament. Vaea Fifita looked to be their next star at 6 a few seasons ago but has since falling down the pecking order. Dalton Papalii has been the recent inclusion, but the Blues’ struggles and lack of international experience could hurt him. Liam Squire is currently asking to not be selected for the All Blacks but could come back into contention if he makes himself available for the World Cup. Shannon Frizell burst onto the scene in his first couple of caps but had a limited impact on later matches in last year’s Rugby Championship. While part of me is thinking that none of these players will make it and Hemopo may even take the spot as a utility forward, I’m going to pick Vaea Fifita here as he has experience in the second row and provides another option in the lineout. The final spot goes to jackal Matt Todd, who was one of the stars of the Super Rugby final and made Super Rugby’s top 10 for offloads and tackles completed.

Scrum Half

The top 2 pick themselves here as both Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are among the best in the world at the position. Bryn Hall’s success with the Crusaders and link with Richie Mo’unga does not appear to have been enough to see him promoted from the Maori All Blacks. While Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has been the usual 3rd man since Tawera Kerr-Barlow moved to France, he has spent most of the season on the bench while his teammate Brad Weber has had a stunning Super Rugby season, so I see him making the squad instead of his more established rival.

Fly Half

He may not be my pick for the number 10 jersey, but Beauden Barrett looks set to lead the line at the World Cup, while Richie Mo’unga is the clear option behind him given Damian McKenzie’s injury. Or they may even both make the starting line-up with Barrett at 15. As a 3rd fly half, I expect that they will rely on cover from elsewhere in the squad after Josh Ioane was one of the first players cut, most likely Jordie Barrett.

Centre

I could have easily picked 6 or 7 players at the position but in line with previous squads have limited myself to just 4. Jack Goodhue is one of the best all-rounders in the centre corps, while Ngani Laumape has had a stellar season for the Hurricanes. Anton Lienert-Brown may not have had the best matches when starting but is lethal off the bench around the hour mark. As none of the centre options are that experienced covering other positions, I can only imagine Steve Hansen taking 4 centres, which means a big name will be missing out. With these 3 making the plane, I expect a more experienced presence to take the final spot. Ma’a Nonu rolled back the years with his performances from the Blues but it feels like his time is over, while Sonny Bill Williams has missed most of the season through injury and not looked close to his best during the Rugby Championship. New Zealand can look a little questionable defensively at times, so I expect Ryan Crotty to take the final spot by virtue of his stellar defence. However, he did pick up an injury in the Super Rugby semifinal and if he does not recover in time, then I see a fit Williams taking the spot.

Back 3

Again, Damian McKenzie’s injury leads to some big decisions at this position, further hampered by the retirement of Israel Dagg. Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith will compete for the 15 jersey (assuming that Beauden Barrett is not given the jersey fulltime), while Smith is also very experienced on the wing for New Zealand and Barrett has played there for the Hurricanes too. Rieko Ioane’s 22 tries in 24 Tests guarantee him a place on the plane. Ben Lam does not appear to be in consideration despite another strong season for the ‘Canes. Nehe Milner-Skudder’s chances of a second World Cup seem gone after a torrid series of injuries stopped him from jumping on from his starring role at RWC2015. Waisake Naholo is also currently not involved with either the Rugby Championship or Maori All Blacks squads as he comes back from injury, so I think that he is left to play in the Mitre 10 Cup before making his way to the Premiership, while Crusader fullback/winger George Bridge comes in to cover the back 3. The All Blacks showed with Milner-Skudder’s selection 4 years ago that they are not afraid to bring in a winger with just a few caps as a bolter into their World Cup squad. I can see that happening again this year in the form of Sevu Reece, who just finished this season as the top try scorer in Super Rugby.

Who do you think will make it to Japan?


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Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England and Wales both got their series of warm-up matches underway with a match at Twickenham. With Eddie Jones selecting the 31-man World Cup squad the next day, England went for a heavily experimental side that became even more experimental with the late withdrawals of Henry Slade and Sam Underhill, while Warren Gatland chose to put out what appeared to be his strongest available squad. Given the selections, I thought that I was going to be in for a long afternoon watching Wales dominate, but instead England came out the gate with early tries from Billy Vunipola and Joe Cokanasiga on the way to a 21-7 halftime lead. Though Wales grew into the game, England kept the scoreboard ticking over in the second half through the boots of George Ford and Elliot Daly, resulting in a 33-19 victory that brought an end to Wales’ unbeaten streak and stopped them going #1 in the World Rugby rankings following New Zealand’s loss to Australia.

England

Remember the name Tom Curry, because he looks like he could be a star of this World Cup and the next 10 years. At just 21 years old, he has become one of the stars of the England squad and has surely nailed down the starting berth at openside flanker. In this game, he cut out the silly penalties that he was conceding in the Six Nations, and replaced that with a couple of great line breaks. He was everywhere on the pitch, to the point that I was beginning to wonder if Eddie Jones had snuck on identical twin Ben in a second 7 jersey – did anyone count the players?!

Fans will be worried about an injury that saw him substituted just 30 minutes into the match, but hopefully that was more a precaution from the coaches as opposed to anything too serious.

Wales

Every time the World Cup comes around, the buildup seems to involve stories about how Warren Gatland’s Wales are going to be the fittest team at the tournament. While their fitness has been undeniable for years, this match appeared to suggest that they have spent too much time working on fitness and not enough time playing rugby.

Despite being almost the same side that won the Grand Slam earlier this year, they looked a shadow of themselves, dropping off tackles left, right and centre – and not just against the big runners Tuilagi, Vunipola and Cokanasiga. The lineout malfunctioned something horrible on a couple of occasions, gifting Luke Cowan-Dickie a try right before halftime. Though they did get themselves back in the game, they never really looked like they would challenge for the win. While this may help them go into the tournament as underdogs, they need to get back to form quickly to get some momentum ahead of their World Cup opener against Georgia.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, as this section is looking towards the squad selections, I will not be looking at England here due to the having already selected their squad before I could write this. I do however want to take a moment to praise Lewis Ludlam, who looked completely at home on his first cap and Anthony Watson, who looked great on his return to international rugby following injury – hopefully we will see him switched to 15 for the next match.

For Wales, there were very few players who came out with many positives, but I think that Aaron Wainwright will be feeling happy after playing the full 80 minutes. With Taulupe Faletau out and question marks surrounding the fitness of some of his rivals, he has a good chance of making the squad. Tomos Williams was a late withdrawal through injury, but if he is fit he will surely have to travel as Aled Davies did little to impress, while Gareth Davies continues to struggle with his kicking game.

The clear loser from this match is Gareth Anscombe, whose World Cup dreams are over after injuring his ACL. He picked up a knee injury early in the game and I felt that he should have been removed immediately as a precaution, but he instead played on as the medics felt that he could run the injury off, which either proved completely wrong or caused things to get worse. Aaron Shingler came off the bench to play his first match since getting injured in the 2018 Pro14 final and while it is great to see him back (I’d heard rumours that his rugby career was over), he looked so far off the pace that it’s hard to imagine him being ready for the World Cup.


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Eyes On: Ireland v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Ireland v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

The warm-up matches for the World Cup began on Saturday with Ireland taking on Italy at the Aviva Stadium. Both teams rested the vast majority of their starters, giving the rest of their squad a chance to earn a spot in the World Cup squads. Italy started well and put the Irish under pressure with 2 tries in the first quarter, but they were kept scoreless after that as Ireland grew into that match on their way to a 29-10 victory, through the Irish will be nervous after Joey Carbery left the field with an ankle injury.

Ireland

With the starting XV made up of players hoping to earn a spot on the plane, everybody will have wanted to make a good impression and stand out to the coaches. This led to a rough start to the match as the players struggled to gel, even against an equally experimental Italian team. After about 20 minutes, though, they began to settle down and find their rhythm. The defence took over in a way reminiscent of their 2018 Six Nations victory, while Joey Carbery and Luke McGrath took control of the game.

Obviously they will have much harder tests if they intend to win the World Cup, but if they can get their stars back on form, South Africa’s recent performances have shown just how effective a top defence can be, even against some of the most dangerous attacking teams.

Italy

During the Six Nations, I accused Italy of having too basic a gameplan to have success against Tier 1 Nations. Watching this match, I couldn’t think of anything else. This really came to a head for me when Callum Braley came on for his debut. As a regular last season for a Gloucester team that was great to watch in attack, he is used to a structured but varied offence. Soon after his introduction, I saw him bring the ball away from the ruck to the open side and look to slip the ball back to a runner coming between him and the breakdown… only to find he didn’t have any runner there!

Every single breakdown appeared to end with either a pick and go, a pass to a forward taking the ball (usually standing still) from the 9 or a pass to the fly half that would just see the ball shipped down the line. This was resulting in the Italians spending as much time going backwards on attack as they did going forwards, while one attack came to a dire end as flanker Giovanni Licata decided the best option was to kick the ball, only to slice it into the air.

The Italians are putting together a strong team, with great runners in the forwards and backs who can exploit the space, but they need to improve their variety in attack if they want to trouble a decent defence.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

The Irish back 3 has some great depth, but aside from Jacob Stockdale, there are no real standouts at the moment. As such, a Man of the Match performance from Andrew Conway that saw him dominate his opposite number in the air and rack up 51 metres and a try will have gone a long way to earning him a spot on the plane. Luke McGrath also stood out to me as he did a good job of keeping his pack organised and linking well with the backs, while he was just an unfortunate stumble away from a try. For the Italians, Tommaso Benvenuti was one of the most dangerous men on the pitch despite little help in the centre, while Callum Braley set a good tempo after his introduction and brings a good level of top flight experience to the squad.

One player who will be very nervous following this match is Joey Carbery, who went off with an ankle injury. Luckily, the ankle isn’t broken but he now has to hope he can recover at a good enough rate to not be ruled out of the tournament. John Cooney must also be feeling pretty nervous after good performances by McGrath and Kieran Marmion (who was set as Conor Murray’s deputy before he got injured) in this match. For the Azzuri, Giovanni Licata did little to distinguish himself in a back row that it bursting with quality, while Giulio Bisegni really struggled to compete aerially against Conway and struggled to make an impact on the game in attack.


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Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

This season’s shorter Rugby Championship came to an end in Salta as Argentina hosted South Africa. Last week’s draw in New Zealand, combined with the All Blacks’ loss to Australia earlier in the day, left South Africa knowing that victory would see them win the tournament for the first time since the 2009 Tri Nations. Things didn’t start well for them, as Santiago Cordero dotted down within 2 minutes, but the Springboks turned things round to lead 13-22 at the break before holding the Pumas scoreless on the way to a 13-46 victory and the Rugby Championship crown.

Argentina

On 6ᵗʰ July, the Jaguares were playing in the Super Rugby final. Just over a month later, the vast majority of those players are looking back at a Rugby Championship campaign that has finished winless. In Super Rugby they looked so dangerous but in recent weeks, they have struggled to get much going on a regular basis. I think that this comes down to one main thing: fatigue. Due to Argentina’s policy of only selecting home-based players when possible, that has limited the national team to picking the majority of their players from just 1 top flight team. This means that the majority of these players are coming off the back of a long Super Rugby season where they are having to regularly travel vast distances to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, while their replacements are in the exact same situation. Sadly, with the World Cup just around the corner, I think that the Pumas will need to keep picking strong squads in their warm-up matches to try building some momentum, which will lead to all of their top players going into the pool stages tired and likely to under-perform.

How can this be changed? Like Italy in the Pro 14, Argentina needs a second franchise in a top tier league. That way they can double the player base they can pick from, which will allow them to pick fresher players and increase the competition in the squad. The issues here? Well first of all, Super Rugby does not look to be in any position to take on a new franchise given they are in the process of cutting the Sunwolves, the Pro 14 may accommodate them but the travel would be ridiculous and the MLR is not anywhere near the level of the top-tier leagues at the moment, so an MLR franchise would more likely be a feeder for the Jaguares. If we imagine for a moment that Super Rugby did add a second Argentine franchise, we would then need to expect a decline in Argentina’s success in Super Rugby for a few seasons as a number of Jaguares players would likely move to the second franchise for more regular starts, so both teams would need to build up their depth.

It doesn’t look like there’s any easy fix, but as things stand it may be that the Pumas have reached their peak.

South Africa

Last week I discussed how South Africa put in a solid but unspectacular performance to tie against New Zealand. While they had some moments to break out in this game, it was much more of the same from the Springboks, and I think they are better for it. The centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am is shutting down some of the best attacking teams in World Rugby, the pack is looking dominant despite missing captain Siya Kolisi, and in Handré Pollard they have the perfect 10 for this style of play.

Pollard is a physical player who can hold his own in defence and attack, but more than that he is a player who will do the right thing on the ball. With players like Faf de Klerk in the team, he does not have the full weight of controlling the game on his shoulders and he is revelling in the chance to show his quality. Though he has his off days with the boot, he has a good range and finished this game with a haul of 31 points (2 tries, 3 conversions, 5 penalties). Jantjies gives a good option off the bench (with Pollard able to move to 12 if they want another playmaker) but Rassie Erasmus has to stick with the hot hand right now, and that is Handré Pollard.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Despite playing outside Argentina, Santiago Cordero has been given the start in the last 2 matches and his try will have really helped him earn a seat on the plane to Japan. I recently suggested that Marcos Kremer could make the squad as cover at lock, and being given the start in the second row this weekend suggested that Ledesma is looking to do so. For the Springboks, Makazole Mapimpi will have appreciated the extra freedom to attack in this match and finished with a try, while Trevor Nyakane put in a strong performance in the scrums and completed all 15 of his tackles in defence.

With Bongi Mbonambi putting in a strong performance, Schalk Brits will likely be left hoping Rassie Erasmus chooses to take 3 hookers to Japan. As arguably one of the best 9s in the world, Faf de Klerk‘s poor performance won’t have cost him a place in the squad, but it may have put him under pressure from the in-form Herschel Jantjies. Given the strength in depth for the Pumas in the back 3, Ramiro Moyano will be hoping a quiet tournament doesn’t see him get overlooked if Bautista Delguy is fit, while Joaquín Díaz Bonilla may be a little nervous that Benjamín Urdapilleta was preferred for this game and managed to get some counterattacks going.


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Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

The final round of this season’s shorter Rugby Championship began in Perth this weekend 2019’s first Bledisloe Cup match. The Wallabies took an early lead with a try from Reece Hodge and though Anton Lienert-Brown & Rieko Ioane both crossed in the next 10 minutes, Australia led 16-12 at the break, while New Zealand were left reeling after a red card for Scott Barrett just before halftime. The extra man had an impact after the break as Australia scored a further 5 tries to the All Blacks’ 2 on their way a 47-26 victory, their biggest scoreline against New Zealand. Coupled with South Africa’s win later in Argentina, Australia finished 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament and the All Blacks an unprecedented 3ʳᵈ, leaving themselves at risk of losing their World #1 ranking to Wales.

Australia

With James O’Connor returning to the starting lineup and starting at 13 for the fist time in his Wallabies career, this partnership with Samu Kerevi was the 13ᵗʰ centre pairing they have used since the end of the 2015 World Cup. If this match is anything to go by though, Michael Cheika has finally found what should be his first choice midfield combination. Christian Leali’ifano has helped bring more control to the team while he also does a good job of attacking the line. Kerevi is in the form of his life and makes the big metres to put the team on the front foot, while bringing in O’Connor at 13 gave the team a much better balance than they had with Tevita Kuridrani as he had the pace, vision and skills to play whatever situation he was in, resulting in multiple assists in this game.

This close to the World Cup, Cheika now needs to give this midfield time together, but I would be interested to see Tom Banks given another go at fullback as O’Connor’s inclusion provides another playmaker option that reduces the need for Kurtley Beale (who has had his moments but on the whole been rather quiet) at 15. With a return to New Zealand next week, it will be interesting to see the back line selected.

New Zealand

I all the years that I’ve been regularly watching rugby, I can’t remember a New Zealand team that had so many questions to answer this close to the World Cup. The 6 shirt is one that has not been sufficiently filled since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand and while Ardie Savea looked to be the best option given the depth at 7, this performance from the back row was largely disappointing – though Savea did finish with more metres made than any other player in black. Richie Mo’unga has not looked comfortable at 10 with Beauden Barrett at 15, but I can’t help feel that part of this was due to the forwards not putting the team on the front foot and the ever-changing cast at 12 and 13 (this week saw Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue start, with Ngani Laumape replacing Goodhue just 19 minutes in). Whether at wing or fullback, Ben Smith has been a star for the All Blacks for years, but he has looked far from comfortable during recent matches .

Now it may just be that the team are experimenting with different options and do in fact have all their plans settled ready for the World Cup. If so, they are playing a dangerous game as people will be looking at the draw against South Africa and this loss with confidence. The All Blacks are looking not just beatable, but ordinary. Momentum can be a great thing when you start winning, but when you’re struggling its the exact opposite. They need to put in a big performance and get a result at home next weekend.

RWC2019 Winners and Losers

Starting with a man who has already received praise in this article, James O’Connor has come in from the cold and shown that not only is he deserving of a place in the 31-man squad, but he should arguably be starting. Tolu Latu is another who has overcome off-field issues and earned another shot with the national team. Starting today and putting in a strong performance, he’s surely cemented his place in the squad and may have even beaten Folau Fainga’a to the starting spot. While there were not many great performances from the men in black, Dane Coles looked back to his best and will be pushing to cement the starting spot despite strong opposition from Codie Taylor. Atu Moli‘s selection on the bench for this match also seems to have brought an end to Karl Tu’inukuafe’s chances of going to Japan, and he will be hoping to make it onto the plane as one of the loosehead options.

Moving onto players who maybe getting nervous about their places, Ben Smith will need to hope that Steve Hansen goes on the idea that “form is temporary, class is permanent” and continue to select him. His versatility and experience will likely save him but there is the distinct possibility that he could be a high profile exclusion. His try aside, Anton Lienert-Brown again struggled to impose himself on a match from the outset. He does so well off the bench, but in a limited-numbers squad and with so many options at centre, could that limited impact as a starter prove costly? The rise of Tolu Latu has possibly brought an end to Jordan Uelese‘s chances of making the squad, having not featured since his injury-hit cameo against South Africa. Another player whose chances of making the squad look to be over is Nick Phipps, who has not been involved in the tournament at all, with all the minutes going to Will Genia and Nic White.


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RWC2019: Predicting the South Africa Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the South Africa Squad

With club rugby over for another season, the thoughts of many fans have been turning towards the upcoming World Cup and the squads that their teams will be selecting. However, for the teams of the Rugby Championship, their focus has had to be initially on a shortened version of their annual tournament.

Despite coming 3rd at RWC2015, the loss to Japan in the pool stages meant that this was a roller-coaster of a tournament for them, which has continued over the following years, with a loss to Italy in 2016 and a 57-0 embarrassment at New Zealand some of the biggest low points. Though results still may not have gone their way, they have looked better since Rassie Erasmus replaced Allister Coetzee in the head coach role and have even had a couple of great results against the All Blacks. This is a team that look on the up.

As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series with predictions of each 31-man squad for the Rugby Championship teams, continuing today with the Springboks. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, taking into account the performances from the first 2 rounds but also looking some notable names who are not included but could come into consideration. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Rassie Erasmus will pick.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I predict that South Africa’s 31-man World Cup squad will be:

Hooker

South Africa generally take 3 hookers to recent World Cups, so with Bismarck du Plessis left out of the Rugby Championship squad, this looks pretty easy to pick. Malcolm Marx is one of the best hookers in the world currently and when he is at the breakdown, it is like having another flanker on the pitch, while Bongi Mbonambi has been the go-to replacement for him. The final spot goes to Schalk Brits, who retired from rugby but ended up playing again for the Bulls this season and gives a different skill-set for the opposition to defend in open play.

Prop

Vincent Koch is a key part of the Saracens scrum and will split time at tighthead with Frans Malherbe. At loosehead, Tendai Mtawarira provides experience and Steven Kitshoff has quietly become one of the best at the position over the last couple of years. Thomas du Toit has dropped down the pecking order and now looks 4th choice at best at loosehead, behind Lizo Gqoboka, who started every Super Rugby match for the Bulls this season. However, I feel that both will miss out in favour of Trevor Nyakane, who started against Australia and came off the bench against the All Blacks.

Second Row

With 4 locks likely to travel, it was pretty easy to narrow down the options here. Franco Mostert’s work rate is incredible and he will likely start at 5, while the 4 shirt probably belongs to Eben EtzebethRG Snyman has been the next man up of late, but Lood de Jager is a quality player who could push his way into the 23 and will surely make it on the plane to Japan as well.

Back Row

As captain, Siya Kolisi is sure to travel, provided he recovers in time, while I think he would be joined in a 1st choice back row by Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who would also provide extra cover at lock. Francois Louw has continued to be a regular despite playing for Bath in recent seasons, while a strong performance in the number 8 shirt against Australia was a timely reminder of his versatility and surely confirmed his seat on the plane. Judging by previous squads that included just 5 back rowers, this leaves just 1 spot. Dan du Preez had a fantastic season before a rib injury ended it prematurely. Rynhardt Elstadt started against Australia, but I do not feel there was enough in his performance to earn him a space in the squad. Warren Whiteley has had a torrid season with injuries limiting him to just 4 Super Rugby appearances but has the experience his rivals lack (including having previously captained the team). Instead, I think that Kwagga Smith will go as his experience playing for the Blitzbokke provides a different style of play for a South African back rower, while he can also cover 8 as well as openside flanker.

Scrum Half

3 scrum halves appears to be the norm recently for the Springboks at World Cups, and though it looked like Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier were being brought on for the World Cup, it looks like they have dropped down the pecking order at just the wrong time. Faf de Klerk has looked incredible since joining Sale and has worked his way not just back into the South Africa squad, but also the conversation for best 9 in the world. Cobus Reinach was also in the international code but was arguably the best 9 in the Premiership this season. Even before the Rugby Championship began this season, I felt that Herschel Jantjies had done enough to make it onto the plane as a 3rd option, but his performances against Australia and New Zealand now make me think that he will be pushing for significant playing time in the tournament.

Fly Half

Had he not been forced to retire, I imagine Pat Lambie would have come into the reckoning. However, with him unavailable and Sale-bound Robert du Preez not included in the Rugby Championship squad, it looks like Elton Jantjies and Handrè Pollard will travel to Japan as the 2 specialist 10s.

Centre

This was a very difficult selection to make, with 5 players (6 if you include Jan Serfontein who is currently injured but has been mentioned by Rassie Erasmus) fighting for probably no more than 4 spots. Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have been the preferred pairing of late, so will surely travel. Frans Steyn has impressed off the bench in both Rugby Championship matches and his experience, versatility and monster boot off the tee lead me to believe that he will travel. With 2 inside centres also selected, it looks like André Esterhuizen will miss out following a poor performance against Australia, while outside centre Lukhanyo Am put in a great defensive performance against the All Blacks that likely cemented his place in the squad.

Back 3

Aphiwe Dyantyi is one of the new stars coming through in South African rugby and has most likely earned a space in the XV, while Cheslin Kolbe and his lightning fast legs will surely travel even if he only makes the bench. Willie le Roux did not have the best of seasons in a struggling Wasps side, but I think his experience and playmaking ability will still earn him a call-up. If he can recover in time to prove himself, I expect Damian Willemse to travel and gain more experience for the future while also being an emergency cover at 10. The final spot goes to Makazole Mapimpi, who has been in fine try-scoring form over recent years and has been given the full 80 minutes – but not been given many chances to attack – in both Rugby Championship matches so far. If Willemse fails to sufficiently recover, Curwin Bosch would have been the obvious like-for-like replacement, but the inclusion of Steyn at centre and Bosch’s omission from the wider squad leads me to believe that they would rely on Kolbe and le Roux to cover 15 and instead select S’busiso Nkosi.

Who do you think will make it to Japan?


As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6