Rugby Union: Three-pronged attack for an action-packed weekend

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RUGBY betting analyst Christian Murray (@wncomwncobutt) returns with an attractive treble from this weekend's domestic and international action.

South Africa and Canterbury to win, England to lead at half-time (5/4 BlackType)

With the New Zealand provincial Mitre 10 competition kicking-off this week, we have a veritable smorgasbord of rugby matches for the discernible fan to indulge in this weekend.

Including the finale of the Rugby Championship, World Cup warm-up friendlies, and not forgetting the continuation of the very enjoyable Pacific Nations Cup, there’s a lot to choose from. And even though I’m a little disappointed that the bookies haven’t released odds on a Japan handicap win by seven or more, I’ve still found a nice treble that should peak your interest.

Argentina v South Africa | Saturday 10th August 2019, 20:40 | Sky Sports

First up, it’s off to Salta in Argentina for the final fixture in this year’s truncated Rugby Championship. South Africa are one win away from lifting their first title since the inauguration of the revised competition and the inclusion of Argentina back in 2011.

For all the talk at the start of the Championship from coach Ronnie Erasmus about not caring for the competition, it’s true the tournament is slightly devalued during World Cup year and everything is geared towards Japan in September. But the Springboks arrive here with virtually one hand on the trophy.

Win here and it will take an almighty effort from the All Blacks in Perth to snatch the title from Erasmus’ men. It can’t be a bad thing physiologically for the Springboks to go into the World Cup as SANAZAAR champions, can it?

The big buzz word floating around most international camps at the moment is ‘momentum’ and ensuring that a team is carrying some into September. After two decent performances against the Wallabies and All Blacks, a lot of people in South Africa are starting to talk up Springbok chances of lifting the Billy Ellis trophy, and most in the media already see them as dark horses.

So for me there’s quite a bit riding on this match for the Boks. They need to win in order to capture a first title since 2009, and more importantly – continue to build on the positivity garnered from their first two outings this summer.

Looking at Erasmus’ team selection, I think he agrees. He’s not been tempted to tinker too much with his XV that started against the All Blacks. I appreciate he’s rotated the front row – which some might be see as a bold move and a possible advantage to Argentina – but let’s not forget, this same front row started against Australia and had the upper hand. The Boks also came on in the last quarter and shored up a struggling scrum in New Zealand.

Argentina, on the other hand, struggled at scrum time against the Wallabies and were pinged repeatedly for infringements caused by Australian scrumming pressure. If Erasmus had made wholesale changes, opting for an experimental team then I would have questioned his commitment to winning the Championship and come to the conclusion that his sole focus was on September. As he hasn’t, it’s quite apparent he’s coming here to win.

Argentina arrive on the back of nine consecutive losses. I appreciate that half of those defeats were attributable to Mario Ledesma’s predecessor Daniel Hourcade, but where the performances have improved under Ledesma the results haven’t. For all the positives to come out of the Jaguares excellent season, their form hasn’t transferred to Pumas.

Personally, I think that has something to do with the fact that international rugby doesn’t afford the time, space and weak defending that you can take advantage of in Super Rugby. Argentina’s attack looks a little blunted as a result and they are struggling to make the necessary adjustments. Also, lots of the Jaguares tries came from turnovers, with the better international teams treasuring possession more, those chances are infrequent.

Against Australia last time out, the Pumas looked very tired and jaded, which has called into question Ledesma’s selection policy. As people have been quick to point out, he did select a squad of 41 players for this Championship but he has kept rotation to a minimum, having used only 26.

The vast majority of these are Jaguares regulars who have already been subjected to a lot of game and travel time this season. Has the 10 days recuperation been enough for them to recover? It better had because the Springboks will present an immense physical test and it’ll be a big ask to stop the likes of Malcolm Marx, RG Snyman and Francis Louw from making big contributions off the bench around the hour mark if they haven’t.

No, I can’t see anything other than a Springbok victory here. The Argentines haven’t shown enough attacking subtlety to breach the very impressive out-to-in rush defence that South Africa are employing. They’ll also suffer because of their underperforming set-piece and they’re persistent inability to finish off the chances.

The Springboks have that momentum, they also have the physicality, ability to keep possession, work the phases and put immense pressure on a suspect defence. Oh yeah, and that stacked bench. Away win.

Waikato v Canterbury | Saturday 10th August 2019, 08:35 | Sky Sports

Next, we are off to the FMG Stadium Waikato in Hamilton for a first round All-Premiership clash in the Mitre 10 between last year’s championship winners Waikato and last term’s Premiership runners-up Canterbury.

Waikato stormed to the second-tier title last season but will find life in the Premiership a big step up in class. As opening games go, it doesn’t get much tougher, especially when you consider the hosts are coming into the start of the tournament with several first-team players missing.

Super Rugby stars and first-team regulars Damian McKenzie, Taleni Seu and Soloman Alaimano are all sidelined due to injury, as well as likes of Luke Jacobson, Anton Lienart-Brown and Sevu Reeca who are away on international duty. Waikato also lost last season’s coach Jonno Gibbes and one off their best players in Samisoni Taukeiaho in the off-season.

Andrew Strawbridge has come into replace Gibbes but reports from Hamilton suggest that with 17 new players brought into bolster the squad, there has been quite a bit of disruption and pre-season hasn’t gone as smoothly as fans would hope. Not great news when several pundits are already tipping Waikato for the bottom two. Thirteen of the starting XV on Saturday played in the final against Otago, can they bridge the gap?

Canterbury have won all seven of the previous meetings and will be hurting at losing the final so dramatically in overtime to arch rivals Auckland last year. They are firm favourites to make the play-offs once again due to the ridiculous depth of talent at their disposal.

Like Waikato, the visitors will be missing their All Blacks, but unlike the home team, Canterbuy have a wealth of experience to call upon to soften the impact. The team has yet to be selected but I have know doubt that Crusader regulars Luke Whitelock, Daniel-Lienart Brown, new singing Michael Alaalatoa, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Dunshea and Luke Romano will feature heavily.

In comparison to Waikato, Canterbury they’ve only drafted in seven new signings in pre-season and the majority of those are U20 players for the future. It’ll probably be a very familiar team that takes the field – there will be at least 12-13 players who were included in the semi-final and final last year so I’d take the guests’ experience over Waikato exuberance to take top honours on Saturday.

England v Wales | Sunday 11th August, 1400 | Sky Sports

Finally, it’s down to Twickenham for the World Cup warm-up between England and Wales. As a patriotic Welshman, it’s always very difficult to bet against your own team, especially if you’re backing the old enemy. It just goes to show what I’m willing to do to bring you a good recommendation this weekend.

Both sides have recently returned from high intensity training camps in foreign climes – Wales were in Switzerland and England travelled to Treviso. Wales have had a few problems in camp, losing influential Talupe Faletau to a broken arm which has ruled him out of the squad for Japan. This will not have pleased coach Warren Gatland who knows he’s already short of back row options due to the continued absence of Ellis Jenkins and Aaron Shingler.

Although the teams are yet to be announced, I can see these dilemmas affecting Gatland’s team selection and he’ll follow previous first up warm up games and give opportunities to the fringe squad members to see what they can do. So, I expect the Kiwi to stack his bench with the experienced likes of Justin Tiperic, Ross Moriarty, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies and look to introduce them later in the game.

Wales are likely to start with a smattering of older heads and include Alan Wyn Jones, Gareth Anscombe, Josh Navidi and Hadleigh Parks, but the bulk of the team will be made up of less experienced players. This will present England with a good opportunity early doors, as casting an eye over the two squads, you have to admit the hosts have the better strength in depth.

Even if Eddie Jones decides to start with a more experimental team, the likes Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Mark Wilson and Anthony Watson have a bit more international match pedigree than the likes of Hallam Amos, Owen Watkin, Adam Wainwright and Josh Ball.

Add to that Wales’ recent history of starting games slowly – they were error ridden in the first half in both attack and defence against the French in this year’s Six Nations opener – it tends to take the team time to familiarise themselves with structure and continuity.

Wales also have a tendency to struggle when fringe players get their opportunities, which the game against Italy in this year’s Grand Slam year will testify. As will below par performances in previous Autumn internationals against the likes of Georgia and Fiji.

Wales have also been burned mixing it up in previous World Cup warm up games – in 2011 when falling behind 20-7 to England at the 42nd minute mark, and again in 2015 where they trailed Ireland 29-11 at half-time. England are known to start fast and pile on the pressure and points at Twickenham, as their Six Nations matches against France, Italy and Scotland testifies. So in light of that, I’d be happy to get on England to be leading at the interval.

Best Bets

South Africa and Canterbury to win, England to lead at half-time (Treble 5/4 BlackType)

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