Break in Rugby Championship Allows Teams to Consolidate Strength

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New Zealand v Australia - The Rugby Championship
DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 26: The Wallabies form a team huddle prior to The Rugby Championship Bledisloe Cup match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Australia Wallabies at Forsyth Barr Stadium on August 26, 2017 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

For one team, the four matches of The Rugby Championship so far have gone exactly ‘to plan’. The All Blacks have demonstrated their strength in the Southern Hemisphere competition; as per normal. Otherwise, the break in the Championship will be more appreciated by their opposition, who have found results have not gone to plan.

The two week break in Rugby Championship fixtures allowed teams to consolidate, and to get back to the drawing board. A time to recharge batteries and look inward, as to how to proceed in the last two matches.

While many will say that The Rugby Championship faces the top four Southern hemisphere sides against each other, the other side of that argument is that it is ‘one sided’. The New Zealand team always seem to dominate, leaving the rest to fight for any semblance of pride. The record book doesn’t lie–even if Australia did manage a win in the reduced 2015 cycle.

In 2017, who is to argue that is not true.

Four Down, Two to Go

After three rounds, the unbeaten had left a gap to the others. The sides who had early success clashed a week ago, and we all know how that ended [a record 57-0 loss] that has South Africa now crashing back to earth. Creating a small break for the All Blacks, over their nearest; and still for most fans, their greatest rival.

It leaves the remaining teams with little reward, offering just two opportunities to chase down New Zealand’s lead and hoping for a change in fortune. Now, what sounds different to 2016?

It must be disconcerting for the other three teams. Hasn’t this all happened before? Yes, we know what happened in that season. And in 2014/13/12.

Looking at the stats, the All Blacks lead in every category except Ruck success. Argentina could claim that, but one out of 11 stats is not going to bring a smile to Los Pumas faces. The distance to second, third and fourth.

Break in Rugby Championship Allows Teams to Consolidate Strength

Can any team other than New Zealand really assume they still hold any cards? Of course, mathematically South Africa need to win both their home matches – and the All Blacks lose their final two games. Still a prize to be fought for, if the Springboks can bounce-back.

However, one or quick realistically both of those scenario’s are very difficult to imagine. As the sides took one week’s break, South Africa headed back home to lick their wounds. They certainly needed to, although the team have developed more self belief – but how much of that was ripped away last Saturday?

Springbok coach Alister Coetzee shakes hands with captain Eben Etzebeth following the Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South African Springboks at QBE Stadium. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Plenty one would imagine, and they will be subtly be happy to face Australia at Toyota Stadium. [Ironically, the former home of the Cheetahs Super Rugby side].

For New Zealand, the concentration is on their near future. The coach has for some time been playing a game of ‘we have to suffer difficult times’ due to travel. However, externally it can appear self-inflicted. For example, nobody asked the World Champions to add any extra fixtures to their schedule. And no fan has demanded to play a mid-week game in France–in between the test matches, against a French Barbarians side.

Some feel that if the travel burden is too much, then why sign the match contract?

Fatigue aside, tut they are performing. And performing well. Australia may improve, and South Africa might well bounce back, but if it is consistency that you want, then Steve Hansen is right when he says,

“never ever, lose your biscuit”.

Rugby Championship Round Five Fixtures – Saturday September 30

South Africa v Australia, Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein

This is the single match that will be for rankings points, rather than competition points. Australia will want to gain on Ireland, and help the Springboks slip down within reach. The battle will be intense, and South Africa might be the one who needs to stay calm, as well as being ambitious.

Ambitious in attack. They are not as free scoring as Australia, and in fact will have to resist the urge to play defensively. It might be a time to realize the modern game, and face the Wallabies on their toes. To be ready to attack, as much as being set in defense.

And that defense has to be from the outside in. The likes of Israel Folau and Bernard Foley are great organizers, who can be ready to score once their forwards have set-up clean ball. So the Springboks have multiple targets to be cautious of.

Key Wallaby – Kurtley Beale

The former-Wasps player has shown a maturity which was lacking in 2015. He has an assured nature now, and Michael Cheika is gladly welcoming the influence of Beale, to run the cutter. He also has good defense, something he lost when in years past, tried too hard to be ‘the man’ when playing beside Quade Cooper.

Kurtley Beale of the Wallabies gathers the ball during The Rugby Championship match between the Wallabies and Pumas. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Nobody can count out the home side. In fact, the self motivation to ‘bring the truck back in line’ should be the directive. If anything was learned from New Zealand, it was that they can be led around. Stop that, take the lead themselves and they could outclass the Wallabies.

But it won’t be easy. It could even be a classic.

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Argentina v New Zealand, Estadio Jose Amalfitani, Buenos Aires.

The threat of a first loss to Argentina is still a reality–that will never change–but the threat of Los Pumas is not enough for the All Blacks to send a full strength squad. No insult on purpose, but it must stink of both complacency and a degree of contempt.

Argentina have not beaten the All Blacks, but the team and the infrastructure makes them a credible challenge at home. So when Steve Hansen made seven changes at home, he was on a steady footing. To now do a similar demonstration of rest and rotation, the hosts can only feel one way – incredibly motivated.

It is Now or Never!

While that is dramatic, for the passionate South Americans, it is the type of motivation required. No ‘team building’ or development statements. The time for that has gone. Only the three wins in their Rugby Championship history, they may be playing for the respectability of Argentina; rather than just points.

How much would a win matter? It could overshadow Italy beating South Africa, because it pushes Argentina into an exclusive club. Those who have beaten New Zealand: only six nations have ever achieved that feat [not counting the British and Irish Lions or World XV].

To join this club, will take everything that Agustin Creevy and his team can muster. They have to focus entirely on this result. Have every fit player hungry, and ready. Literally ‘throw the kitchen sink at them’ because a win over Australia is not going to get them any higher in the championship.

And gladly, they have beaten the Wallabies before. It is the black jersey, that they want to hang on their wall. It is now, or Never!

Key Puma – Pablo Matera

Very nearly scoring in New Plymouth, out pacing Brodie Retallick (see below) before Damian McKenzie stopped him short, the 24 year old is a clear driver within the Pumas pack. Although not overly consistent, his running and stopping power means that Kieran Read will put a target on his number.

Pablo Matera of Argentina is tackled during The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina at Yarrow Stadium on September 9, 2017 in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The outcome of a loose forward battle means that the ball stays close to the center of the field. Hold it away from men like Rieko Ioane or even out of the hands of Aaron Smith, is the strategy for Los Pumas. Open play can create excitement, but it also brings the risk of counter-attack.

And if New Zealand are given an introduction to ‘play their hand’ and sadly, Argentina would still be looking for win number one (again).

 

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