Apart from the Wallabies there will be three other Rugby Championship teams hosting Six Nations sides this month.
New Zealand will play three tests against Wales; South Africa three against Ireland; and Argentina one against Italy and two against France.
Test matches in the year after a Rugby World Cup [RWC] are some of the most interesting ones, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Many experienced players elect to play in Europe, or retire, and watching their replacements make their mark is compelling.
But there is a more serious side to the June tests: they are part of a ranking system. Although twelve teams have already qualified for the 2019 RWC in Japan, the better their rankings are in May 2017, the better their chances of having a favourable draw.
Every test match until then counts and for the southern teams the process starts next Saturday.
New Zealandv Wales
by “ACT Crusader”
An overcast Cardiff afternoon, 19 December 1953 and 57,000 packed Arms Park to watch Wales’ captain Bleddyn Williams lead his team to glory. Bleddyn never enjoyed another test win against the All Blacks in his lifetime.
It’s been 63 long years since Wales tasted victory. If recent times are a guide then Wales have no hope in the upcoming three-test series. Since the turn of the century (2000 that is) the results are not pretty reading for a Welsh fan. New Zealand has outscored Wales by 300 points in 13 tests, with an average scoreline of 37-14.
Ken Jones – scored the critical try to beat the All Blacks in 1953 at Cardiff Arms Park
While the ABs are heavy favourites to win, there is plenty of intrigue leading into the opening test. Where you ask?
Some have pointed to New Zealand being slow starters as an “opportunity” for Wales. There are injury concerns for the World Champions—and in the post-McCaw et al. era some have questioned whether the ABs have the troops to fill those big boots. Also, the numbers of new players selected in the squad raised eyebrows about who was left out.
Despite the departures, the forward pack seems almost to pick itself: it is in the backs where most of the intrigue lies. A new midfield combination is needed and the wings are far from certain since Savea’s form (and body shape!) is indifferent, and Naholo, a revelation at Super Rugby level, is virtually unknown in tests. There are doubts also about the goal-kicking of Cruden and Barrett—and rightly so.
Waisake Naholo – virtually unknown in test matches
What of Wales? They had a bad start to their Six Nations campaign with key players ruled out with injury, and their performance against Eddie Jones’ men in a tour warm-up game was poor.
The Wales’ intrigue surrounds the game plan Gatland will employ. His default strategy has been ‘crash ball’ through forwards and big centres—a conventional approach to generate space, but limited against good defensive teams.
The evidence so far—Six Nations and the warm-up test—suggests not much has changed. He will have to produce something different to test New Zealand’s defence.
Rhys Webb – Key player for Wales
Keys to the series: ABs midfield clicking; goal-kicking; Welsh pressure at the breakdown and slowing Aaron Smith; Wales varying it’s attack; lineout battle with both teams attacking opposition throws.
Key players to watch: NZ – Fekitoa, Cane, Kaino; Wales – Webb, Faletau, Warburton
Unfortunately for Welsh fans the wait will continue:
All Blacks 3 – Wales 0.
South Africav Ireland
by Mark Rooney
South Africa host Ireland in a three-test series full of sub-plots. The teams face off in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth over the next three weekends.
Allister Coetzee makes his test debut as South African coach replacing Heyneke Meyer who resigned in December. Coetzee has been tasked with ushering in a new era in South African rugby. He’ll be aware of the criticism of the team’s style of play under Meyer, and the constraint of using a quota of non-white players.
Given that, and retirements, the choice of nine uncapped players in the 31-man Springbok squad was no surprise. Notable absentees through injury included Schalk Burger and Handré Pollard who both started in the RWC Semi-Final where the Springboks ran New Zealand close. Bryan Habana was also unavailable due to his involvement in the Sevens’ squad, as was Fourie du Preez.
Joe Schmidt, Ireland head coach – his halo is slipping
Ireland come into the series after a mediocre Six Nations. Coupled with the RWC quarter-final capitulation to Argentina, Saint Joe’s halo is not as shiny as it was twelve months ago.
Schmidt faces a growing chorus who are dissatisfied with Ireland’s conservative style of play. Winning ugly is one thing but people are less inclined to accept losing ugly.
The Boks are aiming to be more expansive and could get good returns going wide quickly and exploiting Ireland’s narrow defence as the Pumas did in the RWC.
Many impressive names are absent from the touring Ireland party through injury, including Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Simon Zebo, Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Peter O’Mahony and the Kearney brothers.
Injury to Sexton means that Madigan, jettisoned from Schmidt’s original squad, is called up. Paddy Jackson should now be first choice at fly-half.
Paddy Jackson – should be first choice at flyhalf
On the South African side of the fly-half equation Pat Lambie is the most experienced man left standing with 50 caps. But as the series continues there’s a chance for either Jantjies or rookie April to make a name for themselves.
Richardt Strauss, Quinn Roux and CJ Stander all return to the land of their birth. Stander was a revelation in the Six Nations and, along with Dillane and O’Halloran, is one to watch.
With South Africa never having lost to Ireland on home soil their aim will be 3-0 for the series. Their choice of a young squad is the first step of an ultimate goal of challenging New Zealand for their number one spot.
For Ireland a 2-1 series defeat wouldn’t be a disaster.
Argentinav Italy and France
by Marcelo Cardoza
Argentina will play three tests in the June test window. The first will be against Italy in Santa Fe, on June 11, and the other two will be against France in Tucuman, on June 18 and June 25.
There are three experienced Pumas who are suspended: prop Ramiro Herrara will miss the Italy game; lock Tomas Lavanini will be available for only the second test against France, and no. 8 Leonardo Senatore will not play for Argentina until the Rugby Championship begins.
Twenty players players from the 28-man squad were at the Rugby World Cup, where the Pumas finished in fourth place. Agustín Creevy will captain the team again; Tomas Cubelli, the Brumbies player, is the only non-Jaguares player on the squad.
The Argentina coach, Daniel Hourcade, will no longer chose those who play in Europe. Therefore Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Marcos Ayerza, and Marcelo Bosch will be overlooked, as will Juan Imhoff, who is hopeful of selection in the Argentina Olympic Sevens team.
Because of these absences and the Jaguares performing poorly in Super Rugby, Hourcade will have to restore confidence and start a new cycle with the Pumas. It will be a great challenge.
They have a new coach (Conor O’Shea) and a squad littered with young players. Scrum half Edoardo Gori will captain the squad because Sergio Parisse is being rested; but O’Shea is confident that Gori will thrive in his new role.
Argentina in Paris 2014 – won five of the last six tests against France in Argentina
In the French camp, the media has criticised the system that puts the domestic Top 14 competition ahead of the interests of the national team. The final of the Top 14 is played the day before the second test against Argentina; so many test players will not be available to tour weeks before.
There will be none from Clermont or Toulon who are automatic semi-finalists; so Fofana, Chouly, Guirado, Parra, Mermoz, Spedding and Mermoz won’t tour. Nor will any from the two quarter-finalists who progress to the semis, held at the time France is playing in the first test.
In the land of wine, rugby fans discuss that subject, and the presence of so many foreign players in the Top 14, especially in key positions. Some argue that there is not enough room to develop young French players and it’s one of the main reasons for the poor performances of France in recent years.
So this will be a tough tour for coach Guy Noves and his Les Bleus, who have won just one of their last six Tests in Argentina.
Argentina to beat France in both tests – and Italy.
Coming up each test weekend – match reports on the All Blacks, Springbok and Pumas games.