A feast of international rugby awaits this weekend. While the focus will be on Auckland, Brisbane and Durban there will be also be much interest in the games featuring Canada and USA, Argentina and Italy and the Pacific Nations Cup match between Fiji and Samoa. Ireland has had a disappointing year and will view their series in New Zealand as an opportunity to salvage something from the season. Wales will be out to prove that it is different this time and that their world cup success was no flash in the pan. England meanwhile will want to confirm that they are back on track after their shambolic world cup and Stuart Lancaster will look to prove his doubters wrong.
New Zealand v Ireland
Ireland will have the burden of history on their shoulders as they seek their first win against the All Blacks on Saturday. The hosts can look vulnerable in their first match of the season but with a new coaching team in place will be very focused on getting off to a good start. The Irish will be keen to replicate the intensity of their performance against the Wallabies in the world cup but with only eight of that starting lineup on the field at kick-off on Saturday it will be a tough challenge.
Five new caps will start the game with Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick and Julian Savea in black and Simon Zebo and Declan Fitzpatrick debuting for Ireland. There will be many interesting head to head encounters but the battle of the loose forwards will be intriguing, most particularly Richie McCaw against Sean O’Brien. Jamie Heaslip will be looking to make up for the misdemeanor that saw him sent off against the All Blacks in New Plymouth in 2010. Kieran Read will play with a broken nose and Dan Carter has still not completely recovered from the groin injury that ruled him out in the pool stages of the world cup. Even not fully fit both Read and Carter are a daunting prospect for opponents.
Prolific tweeter Nigel Owens will officiate at Eden Park and it is hoped that he will allow the game to flow as he did when taking charge of the Heineken Cup Final. The All Blacks are virtually unbackable favourites but in a two horse race anything is possible. It seems unlikely that the course of history will be changed though the non-Kiwi rugby world would celebrate as one were Brian O’Driscoll’s team to prevail.
Australia v Wales
Wales haven’t beaten Australia down under since 1969 but will fancy their chances in Brisbane on Saturday. The Wallabies will have to regroup quickly after the loss to Scotland and will sorely miss the experience of James Horwill, Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Quade Cooper. Robbie Deans continues to be under pressure and has made nine changes to the team beaten by Scotland. Deans 60% winning record as coach of the Wallabies would be unacceptable in his homeland and he will be hoping that rain forecast for Brisbane on Saturday night holds off.
Wales are the most settled of the northern hemisphere teams and will be looking to build on the Grand Slam success of a few months ago. While Jamie Roberts will be missed in the midfield for Wales, Scott Williams will be a more than capable deputy. Sam Warburton will be welcomed back after an eleven week break and his openside tussle with David Pocock is a mouth watering prospect. Warburton has a wise head on his young shoulders and is a virtual certainty to lead the Lions down under next year. His leadership will be put to the test again on Saturday and he will be keen to claim a southern hemisphere scalp.
The Aussies have won the last four encounters between the teams and will go into the game as favourites. Wales have won their last six games but their last two defeats were both against Australia. With Craig Joubert in charge and if the weather permits it could be a fast and furious game. The vastly experienced Welsh front row will be a real test for the Wallabies and may prove too strong on the night. Wales have a great chance to build on their world cup and six nations success and prove that they will be real contenders in 2015.
South Africa v England
This game provides the most intriguing prospect with new coaches and new caps in both camps endeavouring to make their mark as well as several fascinating head to head encounters. England may have their best opportunity of beating the Springboks on Saturday as the game takes place at sea level in Durban. Removing the challenge of playing at altitude favours England as does the Springboks being without the likes of Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez, Schalk Burger and Jaque Fourie.
Make no mistake about it this is a Springbok team very much in transition. There is excitement about locks Juandre Kruger and Eben Elzebeth winning their first caps and clearly they have some big boots to fill. New coach Heyneke Meyer is likely to continue the style of play which his successful Bulls team developed when he was in charge in Pretoria. The game plan may be somewhat less than exciting but to traditionalists it may result in a cracking forward battle.
England coach Stuart Lancaster will find a test series in South Africa a different physical challenge to that which his team faced in the Six Nations. He has made some positive statements since being appointed head coach and now the focus will revert to what happens on the field. New caps Joe Mailer and Tom Johnson will be welcomed to international rugby by the ferocious challenge of the Springboks pack but should both be up to the challenge.
Dan Cole’s battle against the Beast and Brad Barritt’s head to head with former Sharks teammate Frans Steyn will be fascinating contests. However, the encounter between Bismarck du Plessis and Dylan Hartley is sure to provide fireworks and could be the most enthralling. England may be better prepared having rested last weekend while many of the Springboks were involved in two tough Super XV derbies.
Steve Walsh will take charge of the game and while he hasn’t always been popular with England or Lions supporters he has matured in recent years. This game will provide an opportunity for Walsh to demonstrate why he is the leading referee in Australia and New Zealand. England is the more settled of the two teams and may do enough to sneak a win in Durban on Saturday. If they don’t it will only get more difficult as the Springboks get into their stride and they head to altitude for the second test in Johannesburg next week.