New Zealand is the favourite to win the Castle Rugby Championship starting on Saturday with a game between the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses, Australia and New Zealand. They will play in the ANZ Stadium in Sydney, followed, later in the day, by South Africa against Argentina at Newlands in Cape Town.
Castle Rugby Championship
Kickoff time for Castle Rugby Championship
August 14th, 2012
The All Blacks boast several game breakers including Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Cory Jane and even without the injured Conrad Smith they might still win most of the tests at a canter.
This time there are a few cracks, though. New Zealand will field a slightly inexperienced trio of locks on Saturday while their hookers are not renowned for their pinpoint throw-ins at the lineouts.
While New Zealand’s lineouts will be scrutinised, South Africa will also be tested, but in different areas.
The Argentinean newcomers to the series will field a strong pack – especially in the scrums. They also have enforcers up front, like Patricio Albacete (lock) and Juan Fernandez Lobbe at number eight, while the fly-half, Juan Martin Hernandez, is a world-class player and excellent all-rounder.
South Africa’s half backs, Morné Steyn and Francois Hougaard, were not convincing against England. Steyn succeeded with only 54% of his kicks.
Hougaard lacked precision and speed behind the scrums and Ruan Pienaar gave the Bok backs more direction when he came on from the substitute bench during the June tests against England.
Hougaard, though, has improved his kicking game during the Vodacom Super Rugby season and played a blinder in the match against the Lions at Loftus Versfeld shortly before the playoffs.
The elimination of the Bulls in the playoffs against the Crusaders provided Steyn with some time for recuperation after three years of almost non-stop rugby for the Bulls and the Boks and perhaps this could aid his resurrection as a fly-half of international class.
Pierre Spies will also be closely watched because several rugby writers have bemoaned his presence in the Springbok team, especially in tests in which the Boks came under pressure.
The match at Newlands is likely to be on a wet field and the Steyn's ability to keep his team on the attack with accurate tactical kicking, might be the deciding factor.
In Sydney, the Wallabies will be under threat against New Zealand. The hosts werenot convincing against Wales in the three tests earlier this year.
They have exciting backs, with Will Genia and Quade Cooper the mercurial players but they blow hot and cold depending on what their forwards do.
Australia has had perennial problems in the scrums and Robbie Deans, their coach, has convinced Nathan Sharpe not to retire from international rugby, as they need his experience at lock.
But in spite of their problems at the collisions, the scrums and the lineouts, the Wallabies still won the Super Rugby trophy last year, as well as the Tri-Nationstournament, and also caused the demise of the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup.
In David Pocock, Berrick Barnes and Drew Mitchell, Australia possess more world-class players and they might still nudge South Africa for the number2 position on the Castle Rugby Championship log.
South Africa suffered a massive setback with the withdrawal of JP Pietersen at wing.
The performance of Lwazi Mvovo, his replacement, and Zane Kirchner or Patrick Lambie at fullback might have a massive bearing on South Africa’s final log position.
Will the absence of a fetcher of Heinrich Brussöw’s quality reduce South Africa’s effectiveness at the breakdowns and give Australia and New Zealand turn-over possession to convert into tries?
Good place kicking, defensive excellence and great game breakers might also decide the outcome of the Castle Rugby Championship.
New Zealand holds the edge in at least two of the three departments – they are defensively sound and past masters of scoring tries. But Carter has been below his best in the Super Rugby season, so in that area they might be vulnerable.
The Boks defend excellently, but their inability to score tries, and Steyn’s inconsistency are areas of concern.
If they can correct those vulnerable departments, they might still emerge as surprise winners after their final game against the All Blacks at the FNB Stadium in Soweto on 6 October.
Hopefully the Springboks will learn something from the Sharks in the Super Rugby season. They used speed very effectively in the build-up to tries. Incisive passing and the quick emergence of the ball from the rucks were pivotal to their effectiveness in the latter half of the season.
The fixtures in the Castle Rugby Championship are:
• 18 August: Australia v New Zealand, Sydney, 12h05 and South Africa v Argentina, Newlands, 17h00;
• 25 August: New Zealand v Australia, Auckland, 09h35 and Argentina v South Africa, Mendoza, 21h10;
• 8 September: New Zealand v Argentina, Wellington, 09h35 and Australia v South Africa, Perth, 12h35;
• 15 September: New Zealand v South Africa, Dunedin, 09h35 and Australia v Argentina, Golden Coast, 12h05;
• 29 September: South Africa v Australia, Pretoria, 17h00;
• 30 September: Argentine v New Zealand, La Plata, 01h10;
• 6 October: South Africa v New Zealand, Soweto, 17h00; and
• 7 October: Argentina v Australia, Rosario, 01h10.
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