Key Storylines ahead of the weekend’s Tests

Date published: November 25 2016

What does the Springboks selection mean for Allister Coetzee? Will David Pocock be too much for Ireland at the breakdown? A closer look at the major narratives ahead of Saturday.

1) Is Allister Coetzee buying himself time by selecting uncapped players?

Springbok supporters cannot wait to chuck the misery that has been 2016 onto the fire and watch it burn, and who can blame them – four wins out off eleven Tests is a dire return. The wider issues facing South Africa have been extensively covered but what is interesting about Allister Coetzee’s selection for what feels like a must-win game against Wales has been his decision to opt for youth and inexperience.

Rohan Janse van Rensburg should have won his first cap weeks ago – remember how he finished the Super Rugby season with the Lions? – but chucking him in now along with Jamba Ulengo and Uzair Cassiem, with Jean-Luc du Preez on the bench, means two things. Firstly, if Coetzee is to depart, he won’t go wondering. This is a bold and perhaps risky selection.

Primarily though it gives him an excuse to fall back on if South Africa lose, pointing to the need to blood young talent to build the side up for the future as both something that has to happen sooner rather than later, and the fact that exposing new players at Test level when it comes to achieving results can be a hindrance.

Whether Coetzee is still around for their respective second caps remains to be seen, but this seems like a smart move.

2) Do Wales have the ability to think on their feet

This point also counts for the Springboks – do Rob Howley’s players have the ability to play heads-up rugby and to deviate from pre-planned tactics? The struggle for Wales to produce attacking rugby and free themselves from Warrenball structures hasn’t been hard to spot this year.

Making the transition requires confidence in skills levels and a will not to simply revert back to the tried and trusted when passes don’t go to hand. Justin Tipuric seemed fully aware of that this week: “It takes time, we have been used to a system for a long time now and we’re going through a change.”

Would Welsh supporters be happier with a performance that suggests the team is evolving if it comes at the expense of a defeat, even to this weak South African outfit? Quite possibly.

3) How the Irish back row contain David Pocock

Joe Schmidt has proven enough times what a smart coach he is, so there’s no doubt a plan is in place to counteract David Pocock. The Wallaby is quietly enjoying somewhat of a purple patch this month, with seven turnovers in his last two matches. We’re pretty used to Pocock being outstanding, even by his own standards his work in Paris was first-rate.

Ireland’s task therefore is to put enough bodies into the ruck to keep Pocock at bay but not too many, because if that happens then their attacking shape will be lost.

Focus too much on Pocock of course, and Michael Hooper gets free… CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien – if the latter plays having missed Friday’s captain’s run – need big games especially.

4) How much do Argentina have left in the tank

Los Pumas have looked off the pace in their recent losses to Wales and Scotland, and while Pablo Matera might not have wanted to admit as much this week, Argentina’s travel schedule looks as though it has caught up with them. Daniel Hourcade’s side have been off the pace in attack and at the end of a long year when most of the Test side were involved with the Jaguares in Super Rugby, pulling off what would be some upset against unbeaten England looks beyond them.

Not to mention that England recalling a fresh trio of Mike Brown, Tom Wood and Jonny May, plus a fully-fit and hungry George Kruis, makes them a stronger side than the one who ran nine tries past Fiji last Saturday. Argentina will have to dig deep.

5) Would a Georgia win lead to serious discussions regarding the Six Nations?

To be clear, Scotland are a far stronger group than the side who were shocked in Aberdeen four years ago (today in fact) by Tonga when Andy Robinson was consequently sacked.

A narrow loss to Australia and narrow win over Argentina makes Scotland favourites – but let’s go hypothetical here and consider the consequences of Mamuka Gorgodze, Merab Kvirikashvili and co. toppling Scotland on their own turf.

Doing so would take maintaining discipline, a strong scrum and a bit of luck too, but it’s far from an outlandish suggestion. There has been frustrating defeats over the last three years to the likes of Emerging Italy, Canada, Tonga and Japan. Milton Haig’s side need a statement win, to enhance their argument and back up their win over Fiji in Suva earlier this year.

6) Italy must back up Springbok win

Last week’s first-ever win over South Africa was certainly one to savour for Conor O’Shea and his players, but in the long-term context of his plans for the Azzurri it is just a small chapter. Backing up that result with a big win over Tonga on Saturday feels imperative.

The visitors have won back-to-back games over Spain and the USA but given Italy’s confidence from their Springbok win and the emergence of new talent – Giorgio Bronzini at scrum-half has been a real find – a comfortable victory would squash the idea that last weekend’s result was a rarity, rather than the start of something.