Tri-Nations giants in fine form ahead of welcoming Argentina
Argentina will have watched the Summer Tours of their new opponents in The Rugby Championship with plenty of intrigue over the last month. Unfortunately, whilst all three of the Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks had patches of concerning form, the overall feeling was that without reaching top gear, they were all ultimately convincing enough to finish with a combined record against the Six Nations sides of 8 wins, 1 draw and just the one surprising defeat to Scotland by Australia.
Marking the start of a new four year cycle leading up to the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the concept at least is that teams will initially struggle in their first series of matches due to the inclusion of new squad players for the departing elder statesmen. With the All Blacks however, one of their new caps scored a hat-trick in his first game against Ireland – Julian Savea – while another finished with a brace and a man of the match performance in the final one with Sam Cane.
Other countries might have greater numbers in depth but no side has such fantastic quality in reserve than New Zealand. The 66-0 pummelling of Ireland happened with Ma’a Nonu, Kieran Read, Dan Carter, Zac Guildford and more all sat on the sidelines. By the end of the Super Rugby season – which the Chiefs happen to leading before this weekend – there could be plenty of other new talents representing the All Blacks such as Andre Taylor, Robbie Fruean and the rest. Los Pumas will fear them and rightly so.
The Wallabies however are a different proposition. A 3-0 series win under their belts, their summer started with an embarrassing loss to Scotland in Newcastle when a lot of their young talent coming through – Sitaleki Timani, Mike Harris, Joe Tomane, Luke Morahan and Dan Palmer – all failed to make an impact and ended marking one of their early performances for their country with an embarrassing defeat. Timani and Harris both made amends later on against Wales but behind the first team squad Robbie Deans should be concerned.
That being said the Wallabies did create a whitewash series victory against Wales without playing anywhere near their best, albeit narrowly. They also have stars set to make their return in Quade Cooper and James O’Connor, whilst Kurtley Beale showed in his first game back in the 3rd Test what he can produce given open space. Then there are the young prospects of Michael Hooper, Jesse Mogg, Liam Gill and the rest. There is plenty more to come from Australia this Autumn.
Which leaves the Springboks, who handed debuts to three new forwards in the 1st Test against England with Etzebeth, Kruger and Coetzee all coming through the series well. However it was the rejuvenation in form for some of the elder Springboks in JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and captain Jean de Villiers that was more promising, including in that the work of Pierre Spies in the 2nd Test. Bismarck du Plessis has bided his time for so long behind John Smit but he appeared intent from the start to leave his mark on this series, with the overwhelming reaction to his performances confirming his status as the best hooker in the world.
All is not rosy however. Failing to beat a fragmented England side in the final test will grate, as will the performances of Morné Steyn. For so long a kicking metronome in the fly-half jersey, Steyn missed a remarkable 12 shots at goal over the three tests, raising questions within South Africa as to whether Heyneke Meyer should remain loyal to his former talisman or look to an alternative such as Pat Lambie or Elton Jantjies. Three of the South African sides are in contention for the Super Rugby playoffs and good form for players like Siya Kolisi, Peter Grant, JJ Englebrecht and Joe Pietersen could see them all involved come August.
But what of Argentina? Their summer ended on a low note with a 10-49 hammering from France but before that had come a last-gasp win in Cordoba against Les Bleus and a convincing win over Italy fielding what was a primarily second-string outfit. They will go into The Rugby Championship without talisman Felipe Contepomi but bear in mind that the two wins achieved this summer were racked up without any of the Argentinian players who were involved in the playoffs of the Top 14 – 19 players in total from Toulouse, Toulon, Stade Français, Racing Metro and Montpellier including Juan Mártin Hernández, Patricio Albacete, Nicolas Vergallo and Juan Mártin Fernández Lobbe to name a few.
Head coach Santiago Phelan has used this series perfectly to examine the depth of his squad and players like Joaquin Tuculet, Julio Farias Cabello and Manuel Montero have big futures ahead with the national side. But for now in comparison to their three opponents, Los Pumas look way off the pace in terms of talent available. It will be a long summer for certain, but one that will make them stronger.
by Ben Coles