Most of us would, I hope, hate the thought of the Six Nations being regarded as preparation for a World Cup rather than as the great tournament it is, but the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship has neither the history nor the allure of the Six Nations, and there’s no doubt that all four countries – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina – see the truncated Championship which kicks off today as, principally, an opportunity for preparation and experiment. There’s more reason to regard it as such because it is of course that much nearer to the World Cup than the Six Nations was.
It matters to us, too. Whatever optimism there may be among the Six Nations, we should remember that, of the eight World Cups, only one has been won by a team from the Northern Hemisphere – England in 2003, in case you’ve forgotten. New Zealand have won three, South Africa and Australia two each. Results since 2015 may suggest that the gap between North and South has narrowed, but it’s still likely that the William Webb Ellis Cup will go south of the equator again.
South Africa are at home to Australia this afternoon, Argentina to New Zealand this evening. South Africa are favourites to win their match. 2018 was a dreadful year for the Wallabies, who won only four out of 13 Tests. It was indeed their worst run since they lost all their international matches on their 1957-8 tour of the north. Then, Scotland beat them 12-8 at Murrayfield, tries being scored by Grant Weatherstone, of Daniel Stewart’s FP, and Hawick’s George Stevenson. I remember watching them lose to Cambridge University, whose team admittedly featured some great players – Scotland’s Arthur Smith, Ireland’s Andy Mulligan and England’s lineout master David Marques, all of whom would be Lions two years later.
Australia coach Michael Cheika might fairly be described as somewhat beleaguered. He might be out of his job if it wasn’t thought inadvisable to change the head coach so near to the World Cup. His attack coach, World Cup winner Stephen Larkham, has been less fortunate. He has gone, replaced by Melbourne Rebels’ attack coach Shaun Berne. He had some success in the first part of the Super 14 with a version of the flat-line attack, associated with the Randwick club and its great stand-off Mark Ella way back in the early 1980s. Cheika and Berne were both Randwick players. So the assumption is that the Wallabies may now play with a very flat in-your-face backline, varied with a few rugby league ploys. Of course, a lot of teams play flat, some of the time anyway, so this is hardly a revolutionary idea.
The trouble is, of course, that everything a team does now, every innovation attempted, is analysed by opponents and means to counter it devised. There is an abundance of information available, as wasn’t the case when Mark Ella’s 1984 Australia were baffling opponents. Nothing new stays new long now. So one can assume that if Cheika and Berne have some bright new attack strategy, it won’t all be revealed till they are in Japan. Their big match there is against Wales.
So one can be sure that everything Australia does between now and then will be scrutinised and analysed by Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, and counter-measures devised. Cheika will certainly be aware that Gatland and Edwards have a remarkable record in tandem and that Wales won this year’s Six Nations Grand Slam principally because their defence was outstanding. They conceded only one try per match against England, Scotland and Ireland, all of whom, at times in the tournament, played prettier and more exciting rugby than Wales.
The other match today will be of immediate interest to England since Argentina are in their World Cup pool and if they give the All Blacks a hard match, there may be some nerves among English supporters and even in the team camp – still more of course if the Pumas should happen to win. Argentina have a pretty good World Cup record. The Irish can hardly have forgotten that Argentina knocked them out at the quarter-final stage four years ago, just as they did to us in 2007, before beating us 13-12 in the Pool stage in New Zealand four years later.
In the early World Cups there were several countries rather harshly, but not unfairly, described as “minnows”. This is no longer the case. There will be few easy high-scoring matches. Indeed, we’ve hardly had such an easy one since we beat Romania 42-0 in 2007. I would say that Pool B, with New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Canada and Namibia is the only one in which you can confidently say which two teams will reach the quarter-final. In every other it’s at least a three-horse-race.