It’s always exciting when the Rugby Championship starts again and I fully expect the Springboks to win and win well over Argentina in Nelspruit, and that’s because Argentina have scored an own goal against themselves.
We beat them convincingly in our last two meetings, but everyone still talks about how they beat us in Durban last year when our guys had just run too many kilometres in training. But they have often given us tough games and that’s because their strengths were Juan Imhoff on the wing and Marcos Ayerza, who made a huge difference in the scrums and always gave our tightheads a tough time, even if whether it was legal or not is another question.
But Ayerza is a very strong scrummager and Imhoff has pace to burn and he made the difference in Durban last year when they beat us 37-25, scoring a hat-trick, but they’re both not playing in Nelspruit because Argentina have decided not to choose any overseas-based players. It’s a big loss for them and their own ruling, in contrast to South Africa and Australia, who have gone down that route of choosing overseas players.
You only have to look at how the Jaguares did in SuperRugby, they were pretty poor and in fact their rugby went backwards. The vast majority of that side are now in the Argentina team, so they’re coming from a losing culture even if they’ve had a change in coaching.
They’ve travelled the world and earned a fantastic amount of air miles, but not a lot of wins. I think they didn’t expect the travelling in SuperRugby to be so hard. But they have the talent and the basis for success, and from now on it will be easier for them to keep their best players at home.
But they’ve also lost some world-class players since the World Cup like Marcelo Bosch in the backs and flank Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe. So they’re without Imhoff, who is their finisher, Ayerza, the core of their scrum, and Lobbe, who was their heart and soul. Those absences will have a big influence on the game.
In terms of the Springboks, it will be interesting to see what their defence will do. It was very passive in the June Tests and it will be interesting to see what system they use, what new defence coach Chean Roux’s principles are on his debut as a defence coach.
Allister Coetzee has alluded to them wanting to work harder on their line speed and if they get it right then it can be a wonderfully destructive tactic as the Hurricanes proved when they destroyed the Lions attack in the SuperRugby final. It can put the opposition on the back foot, take away their Plan A and then you see what they have for a Plan B, which is what the Lions struggled with in the final.
But it will also be interesting to see how the Springboks react to the Pumas’ line speed. If the referee is laissez-faire at the breakdown and with their penchant for leg-tackles, it could be a long afternoon for the Boks.
Argentina are clever about what they do, at the middle rucks they hold and block the defenders and pillars, and flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and the back three then exploit the space. So the referee has to be awake to that and if the referee allows them latitude then it will be difficult for the Springboks.
But Glen Jackson was the referee in our game against Argentina last year in Buenos Aires and he did really well. He generally wants the game to flow and is not scared to make the tough calls, so that’s in their favour.
But if Sanchez is on his game then he can kick drop goals, Juan-Martin Hernandez as well. They kicked four drop goals between them when they won in 2014 against France in Paris, so that’s a major strength of theirs as well.
They’re also good when it comes to ball-movement and using their wings to create confusion.
It won’t work for the Pumas though to stay out of the breakdown because then if the Springboks get second runners off number nine, it will be difficult for them to get their line set.
In terms of the Springbok selection, you’re obliged to have some experience and even though Bryan Habana is 33 he can mentor Johan Goosen and Ruan Combrinck. Bryan’s always so passionate and committed and he will provide a really valuable example and experience for the youngsters. I hope he goes past David Campese on the try-scoring record list in this game [they are both on 64 international tries, five behind world record-holder Daisuke Ohata of Japan].
Jesse Kriel was stellar last year both in attack and defence, he cut both Australia and New Zealand apart and even in the tightest games he was secure defensively. So I’m sure his chance will come.
The other thing to note about the selection is that the Kubota Spears have more players in the Springbok team than either the Cheetahs or the Kings! We have two players – Jaco Kriel and Lionel Mapoe!!
In terms of tactics, Allister Coetzee doesn’t like to chase the game, he doesn’t want to play catch-up. Giving away soft penalties will lead to you chasing the game and Chean Roux always used to pride himself on making sure the side doesn’t give away penalties in the first 10 minutes or the first 10 minutes after halftime. Allister will want the Springboks to get in front and build up the scoreboard.
It should be a great game in Sydney first up, that always lays down a marker for the tournament, and then we get our chance in the afternoon. There will definitely be a step up from the June internationals because the coaches have now had their teams for a month and they’ll have a bit more continuity, which makes a difference.
So I expect the Springboks to win by 20 points but it’s going to be a different game for the Springboks next weekend in Salta, which is also at altitude and it can be blindingly hot. Rugby is very tough there and Jerome Garces will be the referee in Salta.
The All Blacks don’t quite have the depth they had before at centre, but Beauden Barrett is in the form of his life.
Australia have backed tried-and-tested players like Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Will Genia, who are all quite fresh and have had a break. So I expect a fast and open game in Sydney but I see the All Blacks winning it.
John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012-15, having won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.