Rugby Championship 2014 – round 5

South Africa vs Australia

While on paper South Africa’s tour read as a close win against Argentina and then consecutive losses for the first time in 2 years, there were promising signs shown – particularly against the All Blacks.

The hosts won the 2012 JWC with a 10/12 combo of Pollard and Serfontein and both should feature in the World Cup squad for 2015. Serfontein has made 37 tackles in the last 2 games but hasn’t really played a part in attack. He carried 4 times for 3m against Australia & had 4 runs for 5m against New Zealand. Bar the game against Argentina in wet conditions, recent South Africa home games have been high scoring and with Owens as referee there is always a decent chance of an open match. That may mean Serfontein is seen more in attack and after his performance against New Zealand, would expect that Pollard is full of confidence too.

Committing to a more expansive gameplan can leave holes in defence though and South Africa missed 25 tackles against Australia and 31 against New Zealand. In the former, Steyn missed 7 with Matfield and Vermeulen 4. In the Wellington defeat, J du Plessis missed 5 with de Villiers on 4 and 8 other players with 2 or more. Having to change the midfield and backrow combinations several times due to injuries may also account for those numbers. WP and Lions have both been exciting teams to watch in the Currie Cup and it may be that there has been a slight shift towards changing the mentality in South Africa.

With du Preez and Pienaar injured, Hougaard makes his first start at 9 since the draw in Argentina in 2012. After that match he was used on the wing for the rest of the year and then not involved at all in 2013. He should offer a greater running threat than Pienaar and that again may point to this being an open game. While there is some continuity with 9/10/12 all coming from the Bulls, Hougaard and Pollard did only start 3 games as halfbacks together last season. The hosts may miss Pienaar’s control and kicking game if required to close out the match.

Meyer has opted for experience on the bench with du Plessis, Botha, Burger, Lambie and Pietersen. It will be interesting to see whether making the step up from playing in Japan back to International is a problem for Burger and Pietersen. It didn’t seem to be a problem for George Smith or du Preez in recent seasons but then again perhaps normal rules shouldn’t be applied to those two. Reinach scored 6 tries in 12 games for the Sharks this season and should make his debut for the Boks late on.

At the start of the season, it looked like Prinsloo, Labuschagne, Van de Walt, Cook and Brussow would be the main backrow choices with Mohoje, Venter and Greeff being used rarely. However, injuries meant that Mohoje ended up starting 5 games from May. Having made the most of that opportunity, there has been another jump in his progress – this time to starting 7 for the Boks. With Alberts and Louw out it does mean a new combo of the Cheetahs flanker, Coetzee and Vermeulen.

With Read about, the contribution of other number 8s can sometimes be overlooked but Vermeulen has been in great form this tournament. He has averaged 10 carries a game and 9 tackles and the key point would be the majority of those have been dominant. There isn’t really the offloading game that Read possesses, but in the absence of Alberts he has assumed the enforcer role and is probably setting the tone in defence for the rest of the side.

South Africa have won the last 6 matches in Cape Town against Australia by an average score of 24-16. If their games against New Zealand and the touring Lions are excluded, then its 20/22 wins at this venue since the mid-1970s. The Boks last 2 home wins over this opposition came by 23 and 20 points.

Since last June, South Africa have averaged 17 points scored in the 1st half with the Wellington game the only time in 17 matches that they managed less than 10 points in the opening 40 minutes. They’ve led at halftime in 13/17 games in that period. There has been a slight decline in their 2nd half scoring trends this tournament with 3-3 against Argentina in rd 1 and then 17-18, 9-13 and 3-8.

After their last trip to Cape Town in September 2013, the visitors really improved their 2nd half performances and have only been outscored after the break twice in 14 games (by 14 points in Twickenham and Auckland).

Australia would have covered the +5 points 2nd half handicap in 13 of their last 15 games ,the last 2 meetings with South Africa and on 8/10 trips to Cape Town. South Africa have covered -5 2nd half handicap in only 2 of the last 13 matches (both times against Scotland).

Australia have 9 wins and a draw from the last 11 Internationals by an average score of 29-21 compared to 3 wins from the 11 matches before that, which came at a rate of 21-28. In a way it is similar to the position that South Africa were in last year. They’ve only dropped games to New Zealand in this current run (Boks had a run of 19/23 wins with the 4 losses being against All Blacks) and have clearly improved under McKenzie. While winning close matches is important for the group, there are still issues with converting scoring chances and lapses of concentration / errors that let opponents back into games.

There were a few articles in the local media this week highlighting potential Australian ‘tricks’ in the scrum and bringing down mauls, while Andrew Blades has responded with views on how South Africa’s increased interest in competing at every breakdown could lead to penalties. He also mentioned that Matfield would likely try to manipulate and put pressure on the officials. The Bulls lock has been on the wrong side of a few referees this season and can’t see Owens allowing him or the du Plessis brothers to get away with any verbals.

The hosts went pretty close to beating New Zealand away with two of their better players in the last year – le Roux and B du Plessis, below their best. Not sure Australia are in a position to be winning away at South Africa or New Zealand just yet, but do like the idea of points. Over 43.5 would have covered in 10/14 Wallabies matches since they last visited Cape Town with an average of 52 in that period.

Hendricks is 3.25 anytime scorer and Hooper 8.0

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handrè Pollard, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Tebo Mohoje, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Bakkies Botha, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 JP Pietersen

Australia: 15 Israel Folau 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Saia Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 James Horwill, 20 Scott Higginbotham, 21 Nic White, 22 Kurtley Beale, 23 Rob Horne





Argentina vs New Zealand

Recent games between these sides have followed a pattern of a relatively close 1st half and the All Blacks pulling away after the break. A +7.5 point halftime handicap would have landed for the hosts in 5/6 matches against New Zealand since 2011 and in 3 of the last 4 at home when facing this opponent. The exception was the 2012 La Plata game when Carter sparked 32 points in 24 minutes.

The visitors would have cleared a -8 point 2nd half handicap in the last 6 matches in this fixture and average a 14 point advantage over Argentina after the break. Over a longer period, that handicap would have landed in 15/19 matches against Los Pumas.

Since 2012, New Zealand’s 19 home games have seen 42.3 average total points and their 16 away games – 52.6 points, so it has usually been worth backing unders at home and overs away.

The query for this match is whether there are any reasons to think this will be different from the previous games.

Having scored 31 points against South Africa at home and 25 in Australia in the last round, there are signs that Argentina’s attacking development is progressing well. They’ve scored at least 15 points in home games in this tournament since 2012 and now have a back 3 that are capable of finishing chances. Their last couple of home matches in the Rugby Championship have seen 71 and 64 total points and the 48.5 line for this game is probably worth taking on.

The obvious talking point for the All Blacks is the absence of Cruden. His dropping due to disciplinary reasons gives Barrett a 2nd start at fly-half. He was a little unlucky not get a start in the England series so this does provide a great opportunity – both for the player and for the coaches to improve depth in a key position. Barrett had 2 assists against Argentina in Napier but also missed a few shots at goal. Controlling a match from the start does require a different mentality from making a 20 minute cameo from the bench but wouldn’t expect him to deviate too far from his natural game.

The Cruden / Barrett ‘story’ shouldn’t distract attention away from the fact that Fekitoa is starting in the place of the injured Nonu and in an unfamiliar 12 shirt. He is clearly capable of shredding defences but it does mean there will be an inexperienced 10/12 combo. That in turn may put added pressure on Conrad Smith and if he were to get injured then there would be issues for the upcoming South Africa match.

The returns of Whitelock and Kaino are timely given the disruption in the backs but with Coles at home, there is a chance that the uncapped Harris will be needed. With hooker identified as a position that may be lacking depth, both Harris and Coltman were brought in as ‘apprentices’ over the last season so steps have been taken to prepare for situations like this. Similar to Barrett and Fekitoa though, there is no way of really knowing how the player will handle the nerves and occasion, until they are out there.

Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Juan Imhoff, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Benjamin Macome, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Mariano Galarza, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Matías Cortese, 17 Lucas Noguera Paz, 18 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Rodrigo Báez, 21 Martín Landajo, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Horacio Agulla.

New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Jeremy Thrush, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Cory Jane.