The Rugby Championship is nearly halfway through already, with the Southern Hemisphere giants going at it for only two more action packed rounds. In all honesty, it is hard to know what to make of the Rugby Championship 2015, given that the focus for all teams is the Rugby World Cup. This means that we should expect to see some testing of new combinations and fresh faces included in teams to see if they sink or swim, while there will be a fine line between blooding players and resting them.
Interestingly, most fans and teams know not to read too much into this condensed version of the Rugby Championship, but there are such high expectations on the All Blacks for example, that they will have to be careful to tread that fine line between winning and experimenting. This competition will be fast paced with only three matches for each team, so one defeat could be all it takes to eliminate a team from winning the championship. No team has ever won both The Rugby Championship and Rugby World Cup in the same calendar year.
In Round 1 we saw the All Blacks easily see off Argentina, while Australia grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat against the Springboks, although some people think it was the other way around!
There are some interesting selections across the teams for Round 2. The main talking points are the selections of exciting ball scavenging loose forwards Heinrich Brussow (Springboks) and David Pocock (Wallabies) for their teams and the fact that there are several changes on the benches. Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua get to start for Australia against Argentina, while there will be plenty of interest in big Lood de Jager for the Springboks.
The All Blacks look set to ease two debutants into their starting lineup to face the Springboks at Ellis Park, with Lima Sopoaga in the hot seat, while James Broadhurst comes into the second row. Talk about baptism of fire! It shows the confidence that the selectors and coaches have, and the experience in this team that will surround these players to make a smooth transition for these players.
The Rugby Championship Round 2 is probably going to be the best chance to see two close games in the same round, with the two first round losers hosting the first round winners. An away win in such a short competition will be valuable.
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The Rugby Championship Round 2
South Africa vs New Zealand
The best two teams in the World Rugby rankings do battle again in Johannesburg as the Springboks host the All Blacks. Sure, there are some changes for this match for both sides, but this game is always a classic.
The Springboks will hope that Heinrich Brussow’s unbeaten record against the All Blacks continues, as one of eight changes to the team that narrowly lost to Australia. Lood de Jager starts at lock, while there are several changes to the bench. Cornal Hendricks starts on the wing as JP Pieterson has withdrawn with injury.
The Springboks love taking the All Blacks to play at altitude and have a 9-6 head to head record there. The crowd literally got them home against the All Blacks last year, and you think that if they are going to land a psychological blow before the Rugby World Cup, then this is the game to do it in. They will have to improve from their performance against Australia last week, where they were good for sixty minutes. It is hard to beat the All Blacks unless you play 80 minutes of rugby.
The All Blacks squad has been named for this match, with Steve Hansen giving debuts to Lima Sopoaga and James Broadhurst baptisms of fire in front of a packed Ellis Park. This will be a great chance to see how the new breed of All Blacks sink or swim at the next level. Interestingly, Julian Savea is still not playing, while Ben Smith is starting, but on the wing, meaning that Israel Dagg gets more game-time and that the back three players have all played plenty of times at fullback in an attempt to diffuse the Springboks kicking game.
We see the return of plenty of Super Rugby finalists either in the pack or on the bench with the likes of Beauden Barrett, Victor Vito, Malakai Fekitoa, Dane Coles, Sopoaga, Broadhurst and all three Smiths coming into the team.
Liam Messam gets a shot at redemption a year after he gave away a match defining penalty, while Richie McCaw is still the only open-side flanker in the squad meaning no game-time for Sam Cane or Matt Todd. If he goes down injured, it will be interesting to see how the All Blacks combat the scavenger extraordinaire Heinrich Brussow.
This All Blacks team has so much experience that it should make it easier for the two debutants, with players like McCaw, Franks, Woodcock, Read, Nonu, the three Smiths and Dagg all very experienced. It is a testimony to the All Blacks depth when they can keep bringing in these great young players.
This game is set to be a cracker, with the All Blacks having a relatively poor record at Ellis Park winning only four from 13. The Springboks were only good for sixty minutes against the Wallabies, while you get the feeling that the All Blacks have the experience and that in-build self-belief that they won’t be beaten. This will be a close game and the most likely game for the All Blacks to lose this season. It is also a great chance for both teams to gain a psychological edge before the Rugby World Cup. The Springboks have a 25-20 head to head lead over the All Blacks in South Africa, but alarmingly the All Blacks have won nine from their last 11 games in South Africa. The Springboks need to get back their intimidation factor at home again. There is also the thought that the All Blacks will be fired up after losing so narrowly last year.
My pick: All Blacks by 6 points
Fantasy Rugby picks: (Springboks) Lood de Jager, Willie Le Roux, Heinrich Brussow, Handre Pollard, Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Burger, Eben Etzebeth.
All Blacks: Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick, Dane Coles, Ma’a Nonu, Ben Smith, Charles Piutau, James Broadhurst (bargain),
Argentina vs Australia
The Pumas have their best chance to win a game in The Rugby Championship 2015 when they host the Wallabies. This is their only home game in The Rugby Championship and they did beat the Wallabies in this fixture last year to record their maiden win in the competition. They rested some of their key players for the first game when they were soundly beaten by the All Blacks in Christchurch.
The Wallabies will be hoping to be inspired by their final twenty minutes against the Springboks in Brisbane and this will start with not taking a backwards step to the powerful Argentina pack who kept the All Blacks honest last week, including scoring two driving maul tries.
The Pumas haven’t named their team, but Agustin Creevy is definitely a good pick for those playing fantasy rugby!
The Wallabies have made some changes and watch for David Pocock to dominate the breakdown, while Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua could dictate play if the Wallabies forwards win them enough ball.
The Wallabies hold a 5-4 head to head lead against the Pumas in Argentina and a 17-5 advantage overall. They lost this fixture last year, but showed more in their first game of the Rugby Championship than the hosts did in their game. The hosts will be more competitive in this game than they were against the All Blacks. The home advantage will keep the Pumas in this game, but the Wallabies should still win. David Pocock will be crucial in this game and the likes of Israel Folau, Tevita Kuridrani, Bernard Foley and Adam Ashley-Cooper should benefit.
My pick: Wallabies by 7 points.
Fantasy Rugby picks: (not named yet) Agustin Creevy, Santiago Cordero, Facundo Isa – if playing.
Wallabies: David Pocock, Stephen Moore, Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tevita Kuridrani, Israel Folau.
Who are you picking to win the Rugby Championship Round 2 games?