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FEATURE Can the Northern Hemisphere strike back?

Can the Northern Hemisphere strike back?
1 year ago

A second mammoth weekend of Test rugby awaits expectant rugby fans as the Northern Hemisphere aims to counter with a few wins to set up series deciders on the final weekend of action. Couch potatoes will be in vogue with nearly 12 hours action and RugbyPass+ have dissected each of the fixtures with the key talking points, battles and likely outcomes. It promises to be a rip-roaring day.

Australia v England, 11.05am, Live on Sky Sports

The key talking point: Eddie Jones may have a masterplan, but right now, casual observers fail to see what it is. There is no doubt the England coach is giving a head to youth by picking Jack van Poortvliet, Tommy Freeman and Guy Porter in an experienced backline knitted together by the experience of Owen Farrell and Jack Nowell but Marcus Smith has little continuity with which to build relationships and this means England are a perpetual ‘work in progress’. Outwardly, Jones always has an answer for everything but inwardly, and certainly in camp, trying to second-guess selection must be very unsettling for players. There are likely 13 Tests left before England kick off their World Cup campaign against Argentina on September 9 next year and the portents are not, currently, at least, promising. Courtney Lawes, a straight-talker, said performance was more important than results but that is an easier mantra to trot out when you’ve been winning Six Nations titles, not when you’ve finished fifth in consecutive years. England will always have bundles of talent but it also seems to be an Achilles heel.

Has Dave Rennie has steadied the ship? It was the first win over England in eight attempts in Perth last weekend and putting on over on ‘The Poms’ will always win brownie points in the court of public opinion. Australia eked out an impressive victory against all the odds, with Darcy Swain red carded and Quade Cooper ruled out, hours before kick-off, yet the somehow prevailed with Samu Kerevi prominent in midfield. Despite losing Tom Banks to a broken arm and Len Ikitau to concussion, they will be buoyed by the returning Taniela Tupou, who has cult status Down Under and has promised to go toe-to-toe with the similarly abrasive Ellis Genge. Another Wallaby to impress was the hugely gifted Jordan Petaia, who moves to full-back and is a major running threat in broken field.

Jordan Petaia
Jordan Petaia has been handed the No 15 shirt after a try-scoring outing last weekend (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The key battle: Michael Hooper v Sam Underhill

Hooper had a field-day on the floor against England in the First Test. The test cap centurion was able to spoil England’s quick ball on numerous occasions, and with the departure of Tom Curry, the hard-hitting Sam Underhill has been selected over Lewis Ludlum to nullify the Australia captain’s influence. Underhill has been a shining light in a woeful Bath team, but this is only his second England start in 2022, after injury. The 25-year-old has openly called on England to adapt to breakdown interpretations in the Southern Hemisphere quicker, or risk being whistled out of the game. Hooper, for his part, shows no sign of slowing down and after reaching 118 caps by the age of 30, his influence over a fairly inexperience Wallaby squad is vast.

The likely outcome: If England lose this test, there will be an element of desperation enveloping the RFU, for that reason, England could just sneak the Test to level up the Series, but the form book says the hosts will be difficult to beat, having racked up 10 consecutive wins at the Suncorp. However, the Wallabies injury count is racking up and this is a real test of Dave Rennie’s steady progress towards the World Cup, which even Eddie Jones has lauded, calling the Wallabies, ‘more organised’ since he took over. A one-score game.

South Africa v Wales, 16.05, Live on Sky Sports

The key talking point: Jacques Nienaber has chosen to cast tradition aside and make 14-changes to his starting line-up from the 32-29 nailbiter we witnessed in Loftus Versfeld last week. It has led to calls from the likes of Sir Gareth Edwards that it is disrespectful, but one could argue that it merely shows how the preparation to the World Cup takes precedence over, virtually, meaningless summer Tests. The problem for Wales is the Springboks’ second-string looks impossibly strong. A back-row of 2020 Player of the Year Pieter Steph-Du Toit, URC Player of the Season Evan Roos and the adamantine Marcell Coetzee is hardly a downgrade, and of course the return of Handre Pollard to control the backline, and snarl of Eben Etzebeth in the pack will ensure standards don’t drop.

How has Wayne Pivac responded? The Welsh head coach has been under severe pressure in his homeland, especially after the dispiriting last-minute loss to Italy, but the performance against the Springboks in Test one has given the coaching set-up renewed belief and noises out of the camp have been bullish this week. Pivac doesn’t have the resources to make wholesale changes, so the one selection change has been Alex Cuthbert – inspirational in 2014 in Nelspruit – coming in for Josh Adams, who is only just back from a long-term injury. Where Wales will feel beads of sweat coming off their foreheads at tighthead. Dillon Lewis trundled on for nearly 80 minutes last week and his deputy is debutant Sam Wainwright who has barely played for Saracens, let alone gone up against the strongest front-row in world rugby. Wales’ motivation will come from a clutch of yellow cards dishes out to them last weekend and they have sought clarification ahead of the Second Test, thankfully not in the way Rassie Erasmus did 12 months ago.

Dan Biggar
Dan Biggar’s battle with Handre Pollard should be fascinating to watch (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

The key battle: Handre Pollard v Dan Biggar

Pollard was rested last weekend, after landing in the Springbok camp a few days late, due to Montpellier’s exertions in the Top 14. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, because had Nienaber known Elton Jantjies was going to endure an off night, he would have picked a fatigued Pollard to organise the side. What should be interesting is the duel at No 10. Handre Pollard and Dan Biggar are similar types of playmakers. Neither are huge running threats, but both are solid defenders, shrewd tacticians and skilled footballers. They will also be lining up against one another in the East Midland’s derby next season for Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints. Both are ferocious competitors and you can imagine both players looking to get under one another’s skin, to gain the ascendancy.

The outcome: Wales will be desperate to rid themselves of a 52-year hex of not being able to win on South African soil and this could be a perfect opportunity, yet the fear is that a fresh Springbok side, with a point to prove, and in front of a partisan crowd, will have too much firepower for their guests. The Springboks to prevail 28-23.

New Zealand v Ireland, 8.05 KO, Live on Sky Sports

The key talking point: The sheen has been wiped off Irish rugby in the last six weeks. Two painful one-point losses from Leinster, who make up the spine of the Irish squad, at the business end of the season, saw their hitherto unblemished reputation for excellence dented, and the five-try 42-19 loss at Eden Park – a regular graveyard for visiting teams – saw a side who looked fatigued and lacking the bristling energy they showed when beating the All Blacks 29-20 in November. The problem for Ireland is when their execution is just a few notches from perfect, then Ian Foster’s men will punish you, and so it proved when scoring in quick succession off turnover ball in the first-half. Ireland are yet to win a game on New Zealand soil and with Andy Farrell’s away-winning rate at just 33 per cent, it will take a performance of rare skill and tremendous heart to stop the All Blacks emerging victorious.

Is Ian Foster winning over the sceptics? The jury is still out on Foster after a ho-hum 2021 in which they finished their calendar year with losses to Ireland and France, but the comfortable win in Eden Park will have gone some way to appeasing his critics. The attacking brio shown by Ardie Savea, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett was expected but the All Blacks management will have been pleased to see only two tries conceded and the tackle count north of 200, in a robust defensive display. The removal of Sam Whitelock will deprive the side of his vast experience, and Scott Barrett moves up into the engine room, with Patrick Tuipolotu drafted onto the bench. Someone else who will sit alongside him on the pine is the uber-talented Will Jordan, who will add elan to the All Blacks backline when he enters the fray.

Aaron Smith
Aaron Smith’s powers do not appear to be waning as he hits his mid-Thirties (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

The key battle: Jamison Gibson Park v Aaron Smith

With 103 tests under his belt and a few months shy of his 34th birthday, Aaron Smith is entering the veteran stage of his career. Not that his usual sharp service was off key against Ireland, where his pack gave him just enough of a platform to dictate plays around the base of the scrum. Regularly touted as one of the best 9s in the world, Smith would have been interested to see the improvement in Gibson Park since departing New Zealand in his early twenties, in search of regular game-time. The Aucklander, who qualified for Ireland residency in 2019, has been a mainstay of the Ireland backline since 2020, demoting Conor Murray to the bench. Both are jack-in-the-box scrum-halves who can threaten around the fringes, and whomever emerges from their tussle in credit could tip the balance of the game.

The likely outcome: Even though there are positive noises emanating out of the Ireland camp about squaring the series, for neutrals, it’s hard to look beyond the All Blacks securing the Series 2-0. Under the roof in Dunedin, they need just 21 points to have racked up 1000 against Ireland in 35 Tests. Andy Farrell will be desperate to see a first Irish win on Kiwi soil, but it could be a game too far after an unrelenting season.

Argentina v Scotland, 20.05GMT, Live on Sky Sports

The key talking point: With the Scotland U20s labouring and a much-debated ‘project players’ initiative now an accepted part of Test recruitment, Gregor Townsend’s 2022 has steadily gone downhill after that stirring win over England in February. Losses to Wales, Ireland and France chipped away at optimistic voices and the disappointing performance against Los Pumas will again draw scrutiny to Townsend’s four-year tenure at the head of the Scottish game. There was a solitary linebreak, 12 turnovers conceded and a scrum shelling out penalties on a regular basis. Like England with Joe Cokanasiga, Scotland failed to engage their most powerful strike runner, Duhan Van der Merwe, meaning he only had three touches of the ball. Any excuses about being short on game time could be quickly dispelled when you hear Los Pumas had not played together since November. Fortune wasn’t exactly favouring the home side, either, as they lost both half-backs by the opening 20 minutes. Some Scotland fans will be pining for the creativity conjured up by Finn Russell but Townsend’s side cannot be overeliant on superstars Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson, who returns for the second Test.

Argentina team
The returning Agustin Creevy brought his customary passion to Los Pumas in their win over Scotland (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Michael Cheika is back in the saddle? Argentina, of all the supposed Tier 1 nations, have suffered most from the pandemic. The Jaguares have been disbanded, despite years of progress, leaving their Test stars to find contracts to elsewhere, and they have not played in front of their passionate fans in a full house for three years. All the heartache was forgotten at the Estadio 23 de Agosto, when 24,000 supporters roared their side to victory. The victory was built on Argentinian beef, in the shape of Marcos Kremer and the evergreen Agustin Creevy, and finished off by the hot-stepping Santiago Cordero and regal Juan Imhoff, who both ply their trade in the Top 14. Cheika is used to railing against perceived injustices and he fired his squad up to get his coaching career in Argentina off to a winning start. If he can pull together the disparate talents from around the world and give his squad a jolt of electricity in France, Los Pumas can skittle any team, as they showed in 2007.

The key battle: Carreras v Blair Kinghorn

Ask the rugby fan on the street who the respective 10s for Argentina and Scotland and the overwhelming answer would be Nicolas Sanchez and Finn Russell. With Sanchez reaching his latter years, Los Pumas need to find out what the younger generation can do, and for 24-year-old Santiago Carreras, he has the opportunity to prove he can lead the line with the World Cup appearing on the horizon. Facing him will be Kinghorn, the rangy back who can play at 10 and 15, who a year older, is very much auditioning to be Russell’s back-up, having been preferred to Adam Hastings for the playmaker slot. Certainly from the Scotland camp, all the right noises, about Townsend believing in his young matador, but in the cauldron of Salta, it remains to be seen whether the Edinburgh pivot can orchestrate a fightback. For Carreras, who enjoyed a fine end of season with Gloucester, he has the chance to prove his undoubted talent on a world stage.

The likely outcome: Gregor Townsend has labelled the Second Test a ‘Cup semi-final’, as he ramps up the pressure on his squad to deliver a performance that warrants a few glasses of Argentine red post-game, but the wily Cheika is an old hand at firing up his players and the Estadio Padre Ernesto Matearena will be bouncing by kick-off time. Expect a one-score game but the hosts to sew up the Series.


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