Sports

The players (and coach) who must nail Round 2 in The Rugby Championship

If the whole industry you work in was poring over your reviews, performance improvement plan, final warning and running betting pools on your time of termination, you’d feel it a bit.

Ian Foster is crispy. Well done. He’s a hot chicken with the oven beeping. It is not even clear if a narrow win at Ellis Park can save his job.

Maybe it should. The All Blacks are only five wins from 14 in Johannesburg’s rugby citadel; one of their worst returns in a stadium they’ve often been to.

A big win for the All Blacks may keep Foster for the Bledisloe Cup, where he could sweep and buy his ticket to France on NZRU bucks.

A loss seems doom; another trouncing and he may have to fly coach, using his severance allowance.

(Obligatory caveat: Foster seems a very nice man and we Bok fans all wish him long and continued employment as the head mastermind of Kiwi rugby; we suggest he hire Allister Coetzee as his attack coach).

But which players are also under the pump in Round 2?

I’ll look at two per team in this fascinating and more even Rugby Championship.

New Zealand

The coach-captain bond in rugby is deeper, richer than in any other sport. Coaches in the NFL call every play; in volleyball, netball and in the NBA, the coach is shouting into players’ ears almost the entire game. Baseball and football managers use hand signals and bring their players to them for conference continually.

In rugby, a captain is an extension of the coach; his handpicked voice and mind.

On The Roar Rugby podcast this week we were joined by Stuart Lancaster and our own Nick Bishop.

One topic was captaincy; leadership. Lancaster made a good point: in life, in business we know leadership doesn’t peak in our twenties and thirties. Yet a Test captain (usually about 30) is asked to lead 23 highly competitive players in the heat.

There are passages of play in which one voice becomes more vital than any other.

Sam Cane is a quiet sort. Peter O’Mahony sledged him and there has seemed to be no response from Cane. He looks slow to the loose ball and breakdown. Siya Kolisi beat him to the floor in Round 1 and to be honest, Cane had a better position. He also could not dent Malcolm Marx at the ruck.

Can you imagine the French pack simply not being able to move Marx?

So, Cane must rise. Or he may be sitting in 17B next to Foster.

Sam Cane of the New Zealand All Blacks looks on dejected following the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Ireland at Sky Stadium on July 16, 2022 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The other Kiwi upon whom pressure sits is young Ethan de Groot. There is no greater scrum examination for a young loosehead than to try to decipher the strange and wonderful and 50-cap successful long bind of Frans Malherbe.

If de Groot gets it wrong on the hard, hard field with 60,000 sauced up Saffas baying for more scrums, that fast start the All Blacks need will be gone.

Referees are human and a dominant Bok scrum in their fortress with perfect turf is a fearsome thing for a young lad.

Territory cannot be won with a faulty scrum. There is not a good reserve loosehead, either.

If Cane captains better and gets to the right spots sooner than Kolisi, Marx, and Kwagga Smith, the All Blacks will be better. If de Groot can split Malherbe and his hooker, he will have done his part and may have that No 1 jersey for a while.

South Africa

Marx’s reward for being Man of the Match is his more familiar Bomb Squad role. He will likely be the first reserve on the pitch.

So the pressure resides on Joseph Dweba, a muscular bloke last seen brushing Dan Biggar aside.

His throws will need to be perfect, his brake foot must satisfy Luke Pearce, and he needs to get off the floor to carry as quickly as he dances with the Gwijo Squad. Crucially, he will need to make good decisions at the back of the Bok maul.

Dweba can cement his spot as the third string hooker for the World Cup, and then, anything can happen. Remember, Marx played over 70 minutes of the 2019 final.

Australia

James O’Connor, in your long and distinguished and roller coaster career, you have seen almost all. In 2011 he coolly slotted the match winner at the Cake Tin to oust the Boks in a quarterfinal, and here he is over a decade later steering the Wallaby ship in Argentina.

He does not hop like a bunny any more. He isn’t a running threat. But he has seen every eventuality on a rugby pitch.

He’s the closest thing Australia has to Jonny Sexton (without the perfect touch off the boot).

Far from home, in the dreaded second match on tour, it is possible a few young Wallabies can melt or aging stars can go down.

JOC is the stabiliser. As odd as that sounds, amigo.

But that makes him essentially the captain. Pressure.

In the pack, I see Rory Arnold as playing for one of the three Giteau spots later, even next year if that is still the rule.

He will be working against good locks, even if Guido Petti would have been the better benchmark. A bad performance here and Arnold may be seen as a mere luxury?

Look for him to be highly motivated to show why he is a cut above the locks seen in the English series.

Argentina

Thomas Gallo is 23. He is very short. He is very heavy.

Argentina has a big pack problem. They have wonderful hookers and a big angry back five. But no notable props.

Gallo could be an answer. He has only four caps for Los Pumas. He’s up against Taniela Tupou, who is also not tall.

This sumo wrestle will greatly interest both Michael Cheika and Dave Rennie, who both know even as the number of scrums has fallen steadily at Test level (with longer advantages and better hands) the “penalisable” portion has risen. Referees like Angus Gardner ping half of all scrums.

You cannot go far in a World Cup with a suspect tighthead.

The other player who has a lot to show is Gonzalo Bertranou. On our podcast with Marcelo Bosch I listed him as one of the four Pumas I was most impressed with against Scotland. With Tomas Cubelli on the bench, and Nic White his opposite number, this is a perfect time for the nippy and intelligent Bertranou to shine.

Round 2 will have its winners and losers; who do you see as carrying a big load this time?



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