This year’s Rugby Championship has been fantastic for its closeness, and even if it probably did open up a bit with last weekend’s results, I don’t think anyone would be particularly shocked if there was another surprise in the final round. Or two, even.
But how does it end from here? And can we really rule out any possibility?
At some point, the Wallabies will need to show that they’ve moved on from the Rath of Raynal and show that they can string games together. By the same token, the All Blacks wouldn’t be overly thrilled with giving up a lead they’ve won plenty of game from in the past.
The Springboks will feel like they can play for the title in this last round, but could yet another different selection leave them vulnerable? And having won in New Zealand, why couldn’t the new and combative Los Pumas of 2022 add South Africa to their map of victories?
There’s been so much to talk about through this tournament already, but I don’t think anyone can assume it’s all straightforward from here…
Question 1: How does your team finish The Rugby Championship on a high, and what is the best outcome from here?
Easy answer for the All Blacks: win with a bonus point at their fortress of Eden Park and hope that outcome is too great for the Springboks to eclipse.
They certainly have the answers to do it, showing glimpses of such in Melbourne, and the reintroduction of some key personal will hopefully sharpen the focus for 80 minutes.
The key area will again be the breakdown. Maintaining focus and dominating this element will be pivotal for the All Blacks if they want to win the Championship.
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Another stuttering effort and failure to gain a bonus will leave the door wide open for the Springboks, who enjoy the similar benefit of playing at home for the final round but will also have the advantage of knowing exactly what they will need to achieve in their own fixture come full-time at Eden Park.
The All Blacks are in a strange position where, even if they claim the Championship, there will likely be an overarching, lingering dissatisfaction still hanging over the top, courtesy of their poor start to the season. It seems that only a World Cup will buy Ian Foster respect, which means we’re in for a long 12 months, whatever happens.
Strangely, it’s possible for the All Blacks to put in a convincing performance and win well against the Wallabies and miss out if South Africa has a bigger win – and for this to be a better outcome than say, if South Africa loses and the ABs manage another last-minute, referee-assisted stumble over the line. Which kind of sums up the kind of season it’s been.
The Wallabies should be highly competitive again, but the All Blacks will win; the Eden Park record is imposing and is real, they have a more settled 23, and… Ardie.
A Wallabies win, the first in Auckland since 1986, while unlikely to give them the title, would clearly be an incredible high. Next best outcome would be a continuation of what we saw in the second half in Melbourne – a strong scrum, combative and energetic loose forwards and well-executed passing putting players in at the corner – regardless of the score.
Durban is not the best place to score points. It’s got heavy air, a heavy pitch, and heavy history.
Luckily, the Springboks are starting the heaviest flyhalf in world rugby, all 120 kilos of Bloemfontein beef, he who was first capped for the Boks when Canan Moodie was about five.
Frans Steyn can bang. His kicks in this Rugby Championship have wasted no time (average 20 seconds) in clearing the crossbar and even the poles. He is at home in Durban, having played for the Sharks for most of his career.
He will have a good pack in front of him. The worst-performing Bok forward (out of 14 named) is bench loosie Duane Vermeulen! Pieter Steph du Toit is back, with Franco Mostert on the bench. Poker player Vincent Koch returns. It all looks like power and pace.
Best case scenario is a strong start, 15-18 points scored in the first half without much of a Puma fight back. Julian Montoya, Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lavanini are horribly overplayed. Then, the likes of Kurt Lee Arendse, Willie le Roux, Canan Moodie, and Kwagga Smith can run rampant.
But a Michael Cheika team does not easily fold, even if it is often pinged. So, the Boks need to take the three during the first 40 and let Frans’ big boot build a score, go for 50-22, and even throw in a droppie or two.
Then, open the floodgates, shed the load, and score tries, baby! By the time they take the field, the target will be known.
It looks like the Wallabies can hold the All Blacks to a tighter game than the tired Pumas can the Boks.
To finish on a high note Los Pumas will need to have a good game on South African soil regardless of the result.
Obviously, winning would be the best possible result but one must be realistic and understand that facing the world champions on home soil is not an easy task. The only hope is based on the victory against the All Blacks in Christchurch, and that those of New Zealand won on African territory.
The physicality of the Springboks and their simple and direct game executed to perfection makes them a fearsome team even though one knows the type of game they are going to face.
They may not play an eye-catching rugby, but it is extremely effective. The scrums and lines are very well executed and then the game of rucks where they recover many balls and generate penalties that are then transferred to the opposite field sounds like the simple thing to do but it is not.
The Pumas will have to avoid penalties as a first step and then try to prevent the advance of the powerful ball carriers with offensive tackles preventing them from gaining the advantage line if they want to have a good game.
The best outcome is that the Wallabies can win The Rugby Championship and that has to be the motivator when they run out on Saturday evening in Auckland.
And if they can do that, it will have meant that they’ve done a lot of things right between kick-off and the final whistle, which should be a goal in itself. So that’s the top two priorities sorted for the final match of the tournament.
As good as the Melbourne performance finished up, there was still a lot go wrong for the first hour or so of the game. They’re still not nailing their restarts. The scrum and lineout both had their shaky moments, and as a result, they only completed four mauls from 12 lineouts won. They missed a tackle in every six attempts.
Even just small improvements in these areas can have a significant impact, and again, this has to be a major part of the game plan. Get more of the little things right, and they’ll give themselves more opportunities to launch the attacks that got them back into the game in Melbourne.
Regardless of the result in Auckland, finishing the tournament well and building some momentum to take into the Spring Tour fixtures is hugely important for the Wallabies to finish 2022 on a high.
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There are probably degrees of ‘the best outcome’ this weekend. A win would be fantastic, a tournament win absolutely magnificent, but even just achieving steps along the way to those obvious goals will still be important.
Question 2: Why has this year’s TRC proven to be so tight and unpredictable, and will this help or hinder the SANZAAR nations at next year’s RWC?
Each side has had a number of challenges to face, changes to coaching staff, pivotal positional injuries and conflicting interests with a World Cup on the horizon perhaps dominating thoughts and processes.
No side has really managed to get themselves into any real rhythm and depth has been tested across the board, which has contributed to creating a more even and contestable competition.
It may sound like a bit of a negative but it has resulted in one of the best editions of the Championship in recent memory and created many positive talking points with even in this last round, no result can be taken for granted.
With a view to the World Cup, I would look to take these ‘struggles’ as a positive for each side to take into next year’s premier event.
Adversity now will hopefully provide some clarity and lessons for each squad and all will be much stronger for it.
Having such an even competition has been a godsend.
Not starting the All Blacks at Eden Park has helped, but mostly the heightened interest has come about because all four teams have the ability to beat each other on a given day, and have mostly turned up to do so.
This isn’t so much a SANZAAR thing, but a reflection of how small the margins have become right across the world’s top nine nations. Another factor is the way the game is currently played and refereed, with so many penalties being awarded against the side in possession. This can sometimes make it more difficult for sides to sustain pressure in the attacking zone and reinforce domination.
As for the World Cup, that’s entirely up to each nation and what lessons they recognise and what they look to apply – good and bad.
I don’t get a sense that any of the four coaching teams will be happy to treat this tournament in isolation. They’ll all be plugging in information gleaned about their players and their systems, so in that sense, if they do this diligently and wisely, there should be valuable payoff for their chances in France next year.
The big shift in The Rugby Championship has been Michael Cheika’s Pumas beating the Wallabies and the All Blacks, and in the first case, decisively. Nobody predicted that on these pages. My preview had it SA-NZ-OZ-ARG, and that might happen, but I did not think this Pumas outfit could win a match. I was wrong.
The All Blacks are not the All Blacks yet. They can score like All Blacks, but defend and manage time a bit like the Blues. But by the time they take the field in France next year, I can see them taking down the hosts. Better shape on the wings and a faster loose trio is the ticket.
Overall, the Wallabies sit pretty with a dream draw in the World Cup, but ironically it could be nemeses Cheika or Eddie Jones who knocks them out.
The way the fixtures sit, the north will be relatively sure of two semi-finalists. But there is something about the youth brigade on the Boks and All Blacks, added to starchy veterans, which makes me reckon Ireland and France will be crying in their soup.
The new schedule had a lot to do with the difficulty of making predictions in this edition of the tournament.
That the All Blacks started away from home, and against the Springboks with a mixed result, put the other two participants in a new situation, where they saw themselves with more possibilities than previous editions.
Making the two theoretically strongest teams play first and the Wallabies away from home gave everyone more chances.
The Pumas were unknown with Cheika and at first it was difficult to prepare the matches to face them and thus they were able to surprise with good results.
This set of things helped a lot so that we have a tournament that reaches the last date with a lot of uncertainty about who is going to take the title.
The fact that all four teams had recorded a strong win within the first two weekends of the tournament was enormous, and it set everything up from there.
By the end of Round 2, all four teams were on four or five points, with the Springboks’ win over the All Blacks the closest, relatively speaking, at two tries to one.
For contrast, by the end of Round 2 last season, New Zealand had 10 points and South Africa nine, and it was only ever a race in two, even when the Wallabies started their run of wins.
And yes, teams have made their own incremental improvements this year, and the broad notion that the top 10 teams are closer than ever is very real. Argentina and Australia doing their part to prove this in the opening fortnight was huge for this year’s tournament.
What does it mean in a World Cup year?
Well, it can only help, surely.
It surely has to sharpen a team’s collective focus, knowing that anyone really can beat anyone on their day. Lose to the wrong team on the wrong day, and it could be the difference between crashing out of the pool stage and progressing to the knockout stages.
So, it’s hugely important for the SANZAAR nations to go through this now because the same experience will be happening early next year in the Six Nations. It’s not too big a stretch to imagine a team looking back on how they got through to a RWC semi-final and seeing the foundations for their 2023 success being laid in August and September 2022.
OVER TO YOU: How does your team finish off their Rugby Championship campaign on the right note?
And why do you think this year’s TRC has been so wonderful – and what impact can it have at next year’s RWC?
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