Rugby Championship Preview Round 3: Wallabies vs. All Blacks, Pumas vs. Springboks

The curtain comes down on the condensed 2019 Rugby Championship this weekend, Tests in Perth and Salta to determine the winner of this year's tournament.

The Springboks [7 points] lead the standings ahead of the weekend's fixtures with the All Blacks [6] and Wallabies [4] trailing. The winless Pumas are out of the running.

Read on for a complete preview of the weekend's games.

Australia vs. New Zealand, Optus Stadium, Perth (9.45 a.m. GMT / 5.45 a.m. EDT / 12.45 p.m. CAT 7.45 p.m. AEST, 9.45 p.m NZT Saturday)

Rugby Australia has taken a Bledisloe Cup match to Perth for the first time with Optus Stadium to play host to the biggest trans-Tasman sporting rivalry of them all. Tickets to the match sold out in under a week last year, local supporters no doubt buoyed by the scale of the match and the chance to see the two-time world champions for the very first time. Just how strong the Kiwi contingent is remains to be seen, but there will likely be plenty of black jerseys among the expected 66,000-strong crowd.

For Michael Cheika's Wallabies, Saturday's Test comes off the back of a grinding win over the Pumas when they played from in front and repelled a late Argentina fightback. It was far from pretty, however, Australia's ball-handling, in particular, not of the standard of a genuine World Cup contender. But they were at least creating attacking chances, and did manage to finish one move off that resulted in a try for Reece Hodge. But the biggest talking point out of that 16-10 victory was the dominance of the Wallabies scrum; so often a laughing stock on the world stage, the Australian set-piece won five scrum penalties and generally rolled over the top of the South Americans all night. A more organized defensive showing was also timely as Australia held Argentina to just the one try when they had shipped five to South Africa the week prior.

The All Blacks, meanwhile, looked to have done enough to earn a second straight scratchy win a fortnight ago, only for the Springboks to produce a brilliant short-side play that saw replacement scrum-half Herschel Jantjies steal a five-pointer. It hadn't exactly been a vintage New Zealand performance, though, the All Blacks struggling against yet another rush defence formation while the Richie Mo'unga-Beauden Barrett playmaking combination took some time to find its rhythm. Still, the All Blacks will take some comfort from the fact they were well below their best and were still just 40 seconds from victory. And they will take confidence from the fact they have walloped the Wallabies by an average of 27.3 points across the past three Bledisloe openers. New Zealand will be better for two further weeks of preparation as well, though that training block will have also raised the level of expectation for their performance on Saturday night.

What the Wallabies will want out of this ...

Australia have demonstrated they are a better side than the one that finished with a 4-9 record in 2018, but they have so far failed to nail the complete performance that suggests they can go deep in Japan. They managed such a performance in Sydney four years ago, the Wallabies catching the All Blacks on the hop when they unleashed the "Pooper" duo for the first time as they generally outplayed New Zealand across the park. A lot has changed since then however, while David Pocock remains absent with a calf injury. If the Wallabies can combine some promising attack from Johannesburg with the set-piece and defensive purpose from Brisbane, then they might just be in the contest.

What the All Blacks will want out of this ...

Having retained the Mo'unga-Barrett combination and broken with tradition in naming Ardie Savea out of position at No.6, the All Blacks will want answers as to whether both selection decisions boast World Cup merit. Barrett can certainly fulfill the fullback role with aplomb, but the jury is out on whether Mo'unga can replicate his stellar Super Rugby form of the past three years at the game's highest level. The back-row composition is less important as Hansen has already signaled the strategy would only be rolled out against certain opposition; but the All Blacks coach will also be keen to see if Savea can become his side's metre-eater through the middle of the paddock in the absence of Brodie Retallick.


Wallabies: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O'Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (capt), Lukhan Salakai-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Alan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu, Scot Sio. Replacements: Folau Fainga'a, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Adam Coleman, Luke Jones, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Tom Banks.

All Blacks: Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane, Richie Mo'unga, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (c), Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Replacements: Codie Taylor,, Atu Moli, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Ngani Laumape, George Bridge

Key positional match-up: James O'Connor vs. Jack Goodhue

Talk about your left-field selections. Of all the positions you might have expected O'Connor to fill on his return to Australian rugby, only scrum-half would have seemed more unlikely than outside centre. The 28-year-old utility did however have a few runs for Sale in the No. 13 jumper, so he at least has some familiarity with the role. But to throw him into what is the toughest defensive channel, against one of the game's premier outside centres, appears to be a huge gamble from Cheika. Can O'Connor be the foil for the in-form Samu Kerevi, a role Tevita Kuridrani has failed to nail? Do so, and he may just secure a ticket to Japan.

Goodhue has been a critical part of the Crusaders' Super Rugby three-peat, his direct running and ability to offload in the tackle making him the obvious selection at No. 13 for the All Blacks. He is also rocking a mullet to rival any in New Zealand; his is the kind of haircut for which a barber is in no way necessary. Goodhue came into his own late in the game in Wellington a fortnight ago, having seen precious little open space amid the Boks' rush defence before halftime. It remains to be seen whether the Wallabies take the same approach, but he will certainly fancy his chances of exposing O'Connor.

Verdict: The Wallabies' biggest issue against the All Blacks under Cheika has been a game plan that has asked too much of the team, and one that has left them badly exposed on the counter. Australia have had to work so hard to break down the All Blacks' defence through long phase-sets of possession, that when the turnover finally came, a quick shift from the All Blacks found plenty of open space. Australia have been more prepared to kick this season, hence the selection of Nic White, though that is also fraught with danger against an All Blacks' back-three that is yet to fire. New Zealand, as a team, have been well below their best and have admitted as much; but you get the feeling this is the Test they have been working towards. New Zealand by 12.

- 2019 Rugby Championship: Fixtures, results and coverage

Argentina vs. South Africa, Padre Ernesto Martearena Stadium, Salta (7.40 p.m. GMT / 3.40 p.m. EDT / 11.40 p.m. CAT, 5.40 a.m. AEST, 7.40 a.m NZT Saturday)

This year's Rugby Championship will come to an end in Salta, where Argentina are hunting a first victory for 2019 and a real shift in momentum ahead of the World Cup. The Pumas could have easily had two wins, but they instead blew a golden opportunity to defeat the All Blacks and then grassed far too much ball against the Wallabies in going down by six. There is good and bad news for the South Americans on their return home; the Pumas have lost nine of their last 10 Tests in Argentina but that sole victory came against this week's opponents, South Africa. With a trip to the Republic to follow next week, the Pumas are in dire need of a win ahead of World Cup pool games against England and France. Significant improvements are needed in both their ball-handling and at the scrum if they're to get it.

South Africa have easily been the most impressive outfit in this year's Rugby Championship, their World Cup preparations tracking nicely under coach Rassie Erasmus. An under-strength Springboks side first saw off the Wallabies while a line-up that looked far more like the one you should expect to see in Japan dominated the All Blacks for 40 minutes, and then produced a play that was equal parts skill and luck, at the death, to nab a deserved draw with the All Blacks in Wellington. The one concern they will have from the Westpac Stadium fixture will be their failure to really capitalize on the territory and possession they enjoyed in the first 40; a meagre six points was little reward for their efforts. They should recognise the desperation that will be running through this Pumas side, and only have to go back to the corresponding game last year to for a reminder of the challenge they face.

What the Pumas will want out of this

In the search for a more complete rugby arsenal, something was going to have to give elsewhere for the Pumas. Just how far Argentina's scrum had slipped from its former position as the envy of the rugby world was on show in Brisbane a fortnight ago, the Pumas pack completely obliterated by a Wallabies eight-man shove on multiple occasions during the second half. Pumas coach Mario Ledesma must demand stability at the set-piece this week, as his backline and loose forward trio have proven just how dangerous they can be when given the chance.

What the Springboks will want out of this

While they caught the All Blacks napping with a short-side play in the 80th minute a fortnight ago, Erasmus will want his side to be far more ruthless when they do get inside the Pumas' 22 this weekend. Handre Pollard should see a lot of quality front-foot ball if the performances of the Boks' forward pack to date are any guide, and that should free up space for the fly-half and the centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am.


Pumas: Emiliano Boffelli, antiago Cordero, 13 Matias Moroni, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Ramiro Moyano, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli; Facundo Isa, Javier Ortega Desio, Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Matias Alemanno,Juan Figallo, Agustin Creevy (c), Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Replacements: Julian Montoya, Mayco Vivas, Santiago Medrano, Guido Petti, Tomas Lezana, Gonzalo Bertanou, Benjamin Urdapilleta, Joaquin Tuculet.

Springboks: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, RG Snyman, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn, Jesse Kriel.

Positional battle to watch: Pablo Matera vs. Kwagga Smith

One of the stars of Super Rugby this season, Pablo Matera has continued that stellar form in the Pumas' two Rugby Championship games to date. He continues to roam in the wider channels, creating havoc with his offload and strength through contact; a skill-set the Springboks will have surely mentioned in their preparations this week.

Matera's work in the loose is a nice contrast to the more breakdown-focused Kwagga Smith, a player who likely knows he's on borrowed time in the Springboks starting side with regular skipper Siya Kolisi closing in on a return from injury. With Malcolm Marx shifting to the bench this week, Smith will take on the role of the Boks' chief poacher.

Verdict: As good as the Springboks have been in recent weeks, you just get the feeling the fortnight's break may have come at just the right time for the Pumas. Having had the majority of their players involved through to the Super Rugby final in Christchurch, put a on flight home to Argentina, then another out to Australia, all in the space of a few weeks, the energy levels must have been wavering. Perhaps that is part of the reason behind their worrying number of turnovers to date? Back at home; a little refreshed; with skipper Agustin Creevy back at hooker, Argentina can have few excuses if they again fail to execute the game's core skills. Lose this one and their World Cup preparation will be in ruins. Argentina by 3.