Key questions for a big fortnight of southern hemisphere rugby

Tevita Kuridrani looks to break Argentina's line during the Rugby Championship Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Just one round remains in this year's shortened Rugby Championship, with the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies all still a chance to lift the trophy in a little over a week's time.

South Africa head to Argentina for a date with the Pumas in Salta, while the Bledisloe Cup heads to Perth for the first time with the Wallabies hosting the All Blacks at Optus Stadium.

While not a part of the Rugby Championship, those two fixtures will be repeated a week later in Pretoria and Auckland, respectively. The Bledisloe Cup will be on the line at Eden Park only if Australia wins the first Test in Perth.

But the bigger picture remains the World Cup with Australia and New Zealand, in particular, still to settle on a number of key selections. South Africa also have some unanswered questions, but Rassie Erasmus will have enjoyed what he saw at Westpac Stadium last week.

Here are some of the key talking points ahead of the next block of fixtures.

Who needs to stand up?

The entire Argentina scrum

For years it was the pride of the Pumas, a set-piece capable of marching over the top of any opposition. Last weekend, however, the Argentine scrum was obliterated by a resurgent Wallabies forward pack that was out to make a mark of its own. The problem Pumas coach Mario Ledesma has is that the reinforcements he summoned from Europe have so far failed to arrest the slide the Jaguares' set-piece suffered in Super Rugby. Positioned alongside England and France in Pool C at the World Cup, a repeat of their scrum performance from Brisbane and the Pumas will be headed for an early exit.

Tevita Kuridrani

It has certainly been an adjustment for Kuridrani playing outside the Samu Kerevi and not bearing the responsibility of being the Wallabies chief ball-carrier in the backline. But he still needs to find a way to assert himself as part of the Wallabies' attack. There was evidence of that in Brisbane when his involvement was up from Johannesburg, but not quite in the same fashion of season's past. With rumours of a possible return of boom rookie Jordan Petaia, Kuridrani needs one strong performance to really nail down the gold No. 13 jersey.

Vaea Fifita and Patrick Tuipulotu

The All Blacks duo is the beneficiary of Brodie Retallick's injury, but both men will recognise the need to make an impression in whatever chances they are handed against the Wallabies. Tuipulotu was little more than a passenger against the Pumas in Buenos Aires; Fifita was only slightly better but he did seem to be more prominent off the bench against South Africa. If Retallick is fit for the World Cup, there looks to be room for only one man in Hansen's forward unit and much will depend on his desire for further lock or back-row cover. One big performance could swing the selectors' view, while neither will be safe if they both continue to struggle as they did over the past fortnight.

[NB: This content was originally filed before news of the death of Fifita's younger brother. ESPN extends its condolences to Fifita and his extended family.]

Willie le Roux

This might be a tad harsh on le Roux given his role in starting the sequence that secured the Springboks a draw in Wellington, but his status as a senior player within the South Africa squad demands a more commanding performance than what he otherwise showed at the Cake Tin. Le Roux has longed been pegged as a rocks-or-diamonds type player; his best being truly world class and his worst something you're more likely to see in fifth grade early on a Saturday morning. If the Boks are to go deep into the tournament in Japan they need the 18-carrat le Roux, not the crumbly shale version. A strong showing in either Salta or Pretoria will be vital for his headspace.

Who looks primed for a BIG World Cup?

Facundo Isa

Having dominated the Rugby Championship in 2016 from No. 8, southern hemisphere rugby fans have seen scant little of Isa once he departed for Toulon after that tournament. He may not have reached those same heights in France, but his performance at the weekend suggests good things might be on the horizon. The Pumas' back-row, with the in-form Pablo Matera, and either Tomas Lezana or Marcos Kremer completing the trio, will be one worth watching in Japan.

Scott Sio

The Brumbies prop has been a rock for the Wallabies at loosehead in recent times and his absence was notable in the 18-point loss to the Springboks in Johannesburg. But back in the No. 1 jersey at the weekend, Sio went straight to work destabilising the Pumas scrum; many of the post-match plaudits were directed at Taniela Tupou and James Slipper, but it was Sio who'd set the tone first up. Sio is the full package at loosehead and will be one of the first names on the Wallabies teamsheet when it is named for their World Cup opener with Fiji.

Ardie Savea

How can New Zealand possibly leave him out of the starting side at the World Cup, particularly if Retallick fails to recover from the shoulder injury the lock suffered at the weekend? A lot may revolve around Hansen's willingness to shift Kieran Read to No. 6 to accommodate both Sam Cane and Savea in the same back-row, but the idea seems to have merit, and could be trialled in the coming Bledisloe contests. Savea's Super Rugby form demands a starting spot, and he backed that up in Buenos Aires; his case will be irresistible with another performance of that nature against the Wallabies.

Handre Pollard

The Springboks No. 10 looks to be at the absolute peak of his powers heading to Japan, particularly after he slotted a nerveless penalty goal to snatch a draw for the Springboks in Wellington. But he is far more than a beautiful striker off the tee, coach Rassie Erasmus has given him the belief to trust his instincts and take the line when the opportunity presents. Pollard will likely start in Salta but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Erasmus rest him a week later, leaving him primed for a tournament at which he could very well be the standout player.

What remains the biggest selection issue, then?


Given all but five players came from the Jaguares squad, the Pumas don't boast the same options across particular positions that the other three teams do. But having welcomed Santiago Cordero and Joaquin Tuculet home from Europe to add to the already classy trio of Emiliano Boffelli, Ramiro Moyano and Matias Moroni, Ledesma has some decisions to make. Boffelli would seem to have his nose in front at fullback, so too Moyano on the left wing, leaving the others to fight it out for the No.14 jersey.


David Pocock is in need of a run, that much is clear. But where and when that actually occurs remains the subject of great mystery. Some have suggested Sydney's Shute Shield, others a run in Canberra's club rugby finals, while it's not entirely impossible he could come off the bench or even start either of the Bledisloe Tests. You'd think Michael Cheika would want to see him play some kind of role in either of those Tests, particularly given how Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakai-Loto have looked alongside skipper Michael Hooper. Naisarani has been a standout and looks entrenched at No.8; could a bench role loom for Pocock or even Hooper? That would pose an uncomfortable captaincy question but it may well be one Cheika and his fellow selectors have to face up to.

New Zealand

While Beauden Barrett's goal-kicking subterfuge has generated fierce debate - fair play to him, I say - the discussion around the twin-playmaker system in which he partnered with Richie Mo'unga is far more engaging and worthwhile. The jury is out, in New Zealand anyway, as to whether it was a success but anyone who suggests it is not worth another shot is kidding themselves. Valid points have been made around Aaron Smith's entry into the game in the second-half, and how that seemed to alleviate some of the pressure on Mo'unga. Smith's delivery is far superior to that of TJ Perenara, the Hurricanes No. 9 a far more combative scrum-half - he effected two breakdown turnovers in Wellington - but Mo'unga certainly deserves the chance to start a match with Smith inside him. Barrett will be dangerous wherever he plays, but there is plenty in playing him at fullback against the constant rush defence the All Blacks are facing.

South Africa

While there is some conjecture over who should start at tighthead prop for the Springboks, the make-up of their midfield pairing is far more of an unknown at this point. Erasmus has so far trialled two different combinations, with Andre Esterhuizen and Jesse Kriel teaming up against the Wallabies and Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am getting the nod against the All Blacks. Esterhuizen is probably the odd player out right now while veteran Francois Steyn has been patiently waiting for his chance off the bench. That may come over the next two weeks; a de Allende-Kriel combination also looks to have plenty of appeal.

On current form, can they win the World Cup?


No. But given how much ball they have dropped in what have been two narrow defeats, Ledesma's men don't seem to be too far away. The Pumas' big problem, however, is that Ledesma doesn't have any player aces up his sleeve that are still to return, and must rely on a general uptick in performance from his playing group across the board. Can they get out of a tough Pool C? Absolutely, particularly given their ability to open up defences and strike on the counter. But their set-piece is too shaky to go deep into the tournament.


No. Australia have, however, progressed since their turgid finish to 2018. The keys for the Wallabies across the next couple of weeks follow familiar narratives: Improved discipline and a need to better respect the ball. While they reduced their number of infringements from 10 to 8 from Johannesburg to Brisbane, they still lost the count at Suncorp Stadium; their turnovers did increase from 19 to 24, which Cheika rightfully made a point of calling out post-match. There are green shoots in the Wallabies' attack, though, while the set-piece and defence also shone against Argentina. But a strong performance against the All Blacks is non-negotiable; they did it four years ago in Sydney, so why not again in Perth in a week's time?

New Zealand

Not quite. The All Blacks have been well below their best in matches Steve Hansen has described as the team's "June series", yet still managed to win a tricky contest in Buenos Aires and were only denied another W by a Springboks play that was equal parts skill and fortune. Retallick's injury has certainly thrown a spanner in the works given his place as the forward pack's chief piston and there are clearly some kinks to be ironed out in the backline. The next two weeks afford New Zealand the opportunity to do just that and issue that true dominant performance that reminds everyone why they are the team to beat in Japan. There is stacks of improvement in this All Blacks team, and that should worry the rest of the world.

South Africa

Yes. Erasmus has done a wonderful job in his time as coach of the Springboks, by giving his troops the tactics and belief they need to mix it with the world's best. Their rush defence is clearly working, though they will give up opportunities as matches age - and their attack is light years ahead of the one-out snore-a-thon that Heyneke Meyer oversaw at the 2015 World Cup. Erasmus has world-class players in Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen, Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard and, on his day, Willie le Roux, with skipper Siya Kolisi also set to return before the World Cup. That is a spine of undoubted quality who will in no way fear the All Blacks in the Pool B blockbuster on September 21. Back-to-back wins over Argentina will ice the Springboks preparations, but they clearly look like genuine contenders right now.