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Wallabies’ weakness ABs will expose, Foster facing rugby hell, and how the Boks will lift the trophy: TRC predictions

The four nations of the clunkily named Rugby Championship do battle after dodgy July series.

Argentina nipped a depleted Scotland at the last moment. South Africa laboured to a brutal win over a limited, dour Wales. Australia was overpowered by England after a hopeful first Test. New Zealand lost every facet of their series against Ireland.

With scant time left before the Big Dance, they all need answers. But only one team faces an almost existential crisis.

New Zealand (predicted four wins and 2nd place)

It is not an overstatement to say the All Blacks’ two-Test High Veldt tour is the most important trip since the 2019 World Cup. Win both and beleaguered Ian Foster goes over 70% in victories, the team climbs the rankings again, and the fan fever pitch dissipates.

Lose both? The All Blacks would then have lost six of their last seven matches, and all three of their last Tests against the Boks.

The furore would intensify. 2022 would be seen as the tipping point of a steady decline starting with the failure to beat the Lions in 2017, continuing with the awful semifinal versus England in 2019, a loss to the Pumas, and the disastrous end to 2021’s tour of Europe.

All of this could be seen as the pack catching New Zealand, or the All Blacks starting to revert to the mean, or a bit of both, but if the Boks win both, expect to read and hear all of those perspectives of doom.

Foster would probably join his two already-axed colleagues on the dust heap, the first All Black coach ever to be fired, but would that really fix things?

Roar experts Harry Jones, Brett McKay and Geoff Parkes preview the Rugby Championship

Fewer Kiwi teen boys are joining rugby, the schools have cut teams, clubs struggle, sports like basketball are getting future Steven Adams to choose dunks over lineouts, and New Zealand is not doing as well at U20 levels as France, South Africa and England.

Perhaps the brilliant five year run of 2012 to 2016 is not the correct benchmark if talent is dwindling (and so much of it flees to Japan, Europe, the UK, and America)?

Maybe this vintage of the All Blacks simply does not have a formidable tight five or a world class midfield? These two Tests in Nelspruit and Johannesburg will go a long way to framing the debate.

A split is most likely, according to history; leaving Foster in limbo. But the state of the All Blacks makes the hosts prohibitive favourites to sweep.

On the plus side, New Zealand is loaded with attacking talent.

Will Jordan cannot be stopped, only contained, for most of a match. Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga can still open up any side, even a stingy Bok defence.

Give Rieko Ioane the slightest crease and he’ll take it to the house. Aaron Smith still owns the most dangerous passing hands in rugby.

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Ardie Savea is one of the most difficult carriers to dominate and fellow Hurricane Jordie Barrett will enjoy the altitude’s effect on his already sixty metre kicking range.

The issues for New Zealand in this tournament, and the series just gone by, are their defensive structure, shape, and starch.

It starts with an inability to slow the ball enough. Next, they do not own a fitness edge now.

Their gainline presence has been tame. Their breakdown has broken down. Their props are not mobile enough to man the line.

On deeper phases, patience is lacking: hero-ball and leaving the line too late or early are rife. Finally, the ruthlessness of an All Black side defending its line seems to have eased.

There are ways to improve. In a hurry. New Zealand can select their form hooker, more agile props, a properly balanced loose trio with more speed and power to upset the Boks’ ruck and clean their own, and a genuine Test outside centre.

Tactically, the All Blacks can do a much better job on the fringes of the breakdown, spot the inside pass, find better angles to stop the maul, create at least one 50-22 a game, shepherd chasers much better, and drift smarter.

But they are staring at another two losses on the trot. They do not have the players one through six needed to tour the Republic.

Brodie Retallick is a huge loss. Sam Whitelock is running on fumes and cannot keep weight on. The props are not known outside those who follow Super Rugby. The hookers look old.

All is not lost. Super Rugby shows they should win their Tests against Australia, and they have enough class to withstand Michael Cheika’s Pumas.

But a 4-2 championship with an 0-2 start, particularly if the Boks win easily or the All Blacks stick with slow, dominated props, out of form hookers, no true blindside, and a makeshift midfield, could doom Foster.

None of this is to say New Zealand won’t be in a World Cup semi final next year. They can be. They should be. But this tour would go a lot better if they had their pack sorted.

The set piece looms as a frustrating aspect for Foster.

Australia (predicted three wins and 3rd place)

There is no excuse for the Wallabies failing to win both games in Argentina.

The Pumas have a new coach and an injury list just as long as Dave Rennie’s. There was no Super Rugby or URC for the Argentines to keep levels high for 2022’s Tests.

Rennie has had his battle-hardened team for a while now, and should be able to impose his game on Cheika’s team.

But this is a fascinating coaching duel. Very few coaches can better Cheika in a one or two game motivation competition. He will surely bring his team to a boil.

But the England series has given the Wallabies the edge. It was more intense and physically demanding than what the Scots brought. Also, Cheika has rested lineout ace Guido Petti, whilst Rennie has overseas men Rory Arnold and Quade Cooper back, proper upgrades from July.

The huge hole is at 12, where Samu Kerevi is often picked in a World XV by scribes across the globe.

The battle of wits and temper between Michael Hooper and Pablo Matera intrigues me.

One would expect a far better performance from Wallaby big carriers (Rob Valetini, Rob Leota, Pete Samu) and more variety in the “play off Nic White” versus “QC playmaker” ratio.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris – The RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

But they will work hard for every yard against Marcos Kremer and his friends. This will be a slog.

After sweeping the Pumas, the Wallabies should win in Adelaide against the Boks, who struggle in Australia, but that same old power deficit, along with issues under the high ball, may catch them in the Sydney Test a week later. A 1-1 split is likely.

Unfortunately for Australia, they will catch New Zealand in their most desperate form in years, and I don’t think a makeshift fullback is a good fit against the boots of the Kiwis.

So, three wins is what I predict, but they should be thinking five. There just is no heat on Rennie in Australia; so he can think of 2023 more than Foster can. Australia just needs to keep building combinations for their lovely World Cup draw. Rennie will want to have clearly identified his squad for France, including who his “Giteau trio” is, with just a couple of openings to clarify.

Argentina (predicted no wins and 4th place)

The Pumas look like a good bet to make the quarterfinals in France. Thus, this two-game series is probably a semifinal preview for Cheika and Rennie.

Is Cheika signalling he views the Rugby Championship more as a way to prepare for next year than as a be-all and end-all tourney by resting his best tight forward and lineout maestro (Guido Petti) for these two home matches to start? Or Petti may be worn out.

The Pumas are particularly strong in the loosies and at hooker (Julian Montoya backed up by Gus Creevy is a better one-two punch than the Wallabies have).

They have one of the best back three players in the world in Emiliano Boffelli. If he were playing for a team like Ireland, he would be in most pundits’ World 23.

The Pumas backline, if given space, will punish the Wallabies more than England did. A backline loaded with Jeronimo de la Fuente, Juan Imhoff, Matias Moroni and Matias Orlando can finish chances.

Nico Sanchez and Tomas Cubelli have been named in the squad, but it remains to be seen if they have recovered from muscle tears suffered against Scotland.

If they play a lot, and well, expect the Wallabies to have to work very hard to enter the Pumas’ 22.

The issue for the Pumas is likely to be discipline (cards will come) and the absence of Petti. Expect to see ultra-competitive matches, because a Cheika-led team does not lose gracefully.

As for the rest of the tournament, the lack of a defined club season would seem to suggest no wins against the Boks and All Blacks.

But Argentina is well-positioned for next year and there is no pressure on Cheika except to show they are competitive in every Test.

South Africa (predicted 5 wins and 1st place)

No hubris. The Boks are not the world’s most exciting team. At ten, they are one deep. They refuse to launch attacks until they are in the red zone and even then sometimes lob a kick.

But their draw sets up nicely.

The last time in this tourney (or its predecessor) the Boks started with two Tests against the All Blacks at home was 2009 and we know how that Tri Nations went (3-0 sweep of New Zealand forcing a revamp of All Black back three selection and plan).

No Bok fan expects an easy time against the desperate All Blacks. Kiwi players have deep ancestral knowledge of and respect for how to break Bok hearts, usually in the last minute. They are fighting for their own individual reputations, the pride of their team, and to some extent, the ability to return home with heads held high.

I have no idea if Foster is beloved by his group or not, but if he is, the players know they are also fighting for his job and lifelong reputation. To be the first All Black coach fired, in the middle of a season, would be a form of rugby hell.

So, expect war on the High Veld (‘High Veldt’ in other lands).

The Boks will be looking for big hits. They tend to have ten or more players ready to get over the ball, looking for turnovers.

So the All Black clean outs will be vital. More than any other aspect, this is what the All Blacks will have to get right.

Is Sam Cane fast enough to get there? Will Sam Whitelock arrive in the proper power shape? Is Ardie Savea able to shift the Bok pilferers all game?

I expect it to be close late in the games, but All Blacks just do not seem to have the replacements needed to match up to the Bomb Squad forwards. Malcolm Marx will likely start (his 50th Test) in Nelspruit, but that just means Bongi Mbonambi runs on with a maniacal grin at 55 minutes or so. Kwagga Smith is in top form. Either set of props who rotate on will be favoured at scrum.

And after running hard man Jasper Wiese for an hour, Jacques Nienaber can bring on URC player of the year Evan Roos or his rival Elrigh Louw, both young, powerful, and ravenous to get to the World Cup. A big 20 minutes against the Boks’ vital rival and either one will have the inside track or may leapfrog Wiese.

At Ellis Park, Duane Vermeulen may get a rumble, to see how his knee operation went. The engine room is strong.

As always, it is in the backline where the Boks have an issue.

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Damian Willemse has assumed the 15 jersey, with Willie le Roux playing the crucial bench role (when using a 6-2 bench, player 23 is often the most important choice in the teamsheet).

Fiery Faf de Klerk and smooth Jaden Hendrickse are in battle royale for the starting nine role.

Cheslin Kolbe is out with a broken jaw (suffered tackling George North) and quick-quick Kurt-Lee Arendse appears to be his understudy: they are like-for-like type players, so the high ball may be the All Blacks’ best idea. He’s brave, Arendse, but he is not tall.

The rest of it is the same old same old. Handre Pollard was very good in the rubber match versus Wales, breaking the line at will, passing crisply, scoring in traffic, and not missing any kicks.

He does enjoy playing New Zealand. But there is no recognised flyhalf or goal kicker backing him up.

Still, it would be illogical to tip the All Blacks in these two games.

Then, I expect the maddening letdown in the Adelaide Test against the Wallabies. I will be in attendance and expect misery.

A rebound in Sydney based on better depth, and a sweep of the Pumas; this is the Boks’ tourney to lose. And they just might, on bonus points, if they don’t find an answer to their red zone inefficiency.

Prediction

South Africa (5 wins)
New Zealand (4 wins)
Australia (3 wins)
Argentina (0 wins)

 

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