Best Bet 1: South Africa -5.5 @ $1.82 – Tab.co.nz (early twitter play)
AUSTrALIA ($1.03) VS FIJI ($12.00)
Australia kick off their first Test match of 2017 when they clash with Fiji at AAMI Park in Melbourne on Saturday afternoon. The last time these two countries met was at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Cardiff, a match that saw the Wallabies win, 28 – 13.
Last year was another year to forget for the Wallabies, managing only six wins from 15 matches. Australia did well to bounce back after losing their first six Test matches, winning six of their last nine fixtures. They have had a huge turnover over the past 18 months, but the squad still wreaks of coach Michael Cheika’s favourites. His first starting fifteen of the season has Tom Robertson and Allan Alaalatoa as props and interestingly, Tatafu Polota-Nau has god the nod over squad captain Stephen Moore at hooker. Sam Carter and Adam Coleman form the second row, with debutant Ned Hannigan, captain Michael Hooper and Scott Higginbotham selected at number eight. Will Genia returns from Europe to partner Bernard ‘Ice Man’ Foley in the halves, with Karmichael Hunt selected at inside centre for the first match of his International career. According to my records, the last time he played inside centre was in 2015 in the National Rugby Championship (NRC), so it will be interesting to see how he goes on the international stage. He will play inside Tevita Kuridrani of the Brumbies, who has been a mainstay in the Wallabies for a few seasons. Henry Speight has been at his rampaging best this year on the wing and he will join Dane Haylett-Petty and Israel Folau in the outside back trio. At the time of writing, the reserves are yet to be named.
The Fijians have always had the talent, raw size and power, but either have lacked the right coaching staff or a flyhalf that can control the game. Their scrum has improved significantly over the years as well, but their combinations often just aren’t there, with the majority of their players scattered around Europe. They get together two times each season: in June and during the November Test series. Their first training session together was Tuesday of this week, so you would expect their combinations to be a bit underdone. Looking at the line-up named by Fijian coach John McKee, it is powerful with a good blend of youth and experience. Players to watch out for in the pack include Sevens gold medallist, lock Leone Nakarawa, and number eight and Captain Akapusi Qera. Nikola Matawalu is a nippy scrumhalf and Ben Volavola of the Rebels has been entrusted with the ten jersey. I have spoken about it before, but I just don’t think he cuts the mustard at this level, or even provincial rugby for that matter. Vereniki Goneva and Timoci Nagusa are two giant wings and Kini Murimurivalu is a silky fullback who currently plays for La Rochelle in France.
The Fijians are going to bring their physicality to Melbourne – there is no doubt about it. Both teams have had limited preparation time, so instinct and being able to play what is in front of them is going to be key. The last time the Fijians beat the Wallabies was in 1954. In the coming weeks, they play Italy and Scotland and they are more likely to get one of their scalps instead of the Wallabies – even though the home team might be a little rusty this week.
Predicted result: Australia to win @ $1.03 – Sportsbet
SOUTH AFRICA ($1.32) VS FRANCE ($3.42
South Africa commence their 2017 campaign when they host France at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria late on Saturday night. The last time these two teams played each other was almost four years ago, where the Springboks won 19 – 10 at the Stade de France in Paris. The last time the French visited South Africa was in 2010.
South Africa (2017): First match
France (2017): LWLWW
Without a doubt, 2016 was the worst season for the Springboks on record. For such a proud and talented rugby nation, four wins from 16 simply doesn’t cut it and it is amazing that coach Alastair Coetzee remains at the helm. With two years to go until the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, the Springboks need to figure out how they want to play and start selecting players that can implement that game plan. The amateur nature in which the game is run over there, both from a political and administrative standpoint, is something that isn’t going to change, but the selection of number eight Warren Whiteley as Springbok captain by Alastair Coetzee is a step in the right direction. There are four debutants in the starting fifteen with halfback Ross Cronje, wingers Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule and Andries Coetzee selected at fullback. The three Lions players have certainly justified their inclusion, but how Rhule, statistically the worst defender in Super Rugby makes the team, is beyond me. Frans Steyn is back in the mix, albeit on the bench, after a few years on the outer and Stormers utility back Dillyn Lleyds also looks set to make his debut off the pine.
France finished 3rd in this year’s RBS 6 Nations, suffering losses to both England and Ireland in London and Dublin respectively. They will be without a number of their first-choice stars for this match, with the Top 14 final being played last weekend. Not being able to call upon Camille Lopez is a big loss, as he was the RBS 6 Nations leading point-scorer this season, but after a long season for France and Clermont, he has opted to rest. Coach Guy Noves has made 11 changes to his team that played the final match of their RBS 6 Nations campaign in March. There is an entirely new front row consisting of the giant Jefferson Poirot, Clement Maynadier and Uini Atonio. Julien de Levedec joins Captain Yohan Maestri in the second row a solid back row of Yacouba Camara, Loann Goujon and Louis Picamoles selected. Maxime Machenaud and Stade Francais’ Jules Plisson form the halves pairing with Gael Fikou and Racing’s Henry Chavancy in the centres. Virimi Vakatawa, Yoann Huget and Brice Dulin complete the starting 15. There are two potential debutants on the bench in prop Mohamed Boughanmi and outside back Vincent Rattez.
As Jake White put it this week, the Springboks will know what to expect from the French. They will look to dominate the scrums and put a lot of pressure on South Africa at the breakdown. Their line-out should suffer without hooker Guirado for this match. Number eight Louis Picamoles will look to impose himself physically and the Springboks will need to be aware of Les Bleus playing to game at pace, so they should expect quick taps and quick lineouts. Wing Yoann Huget is the master of the inside ball, with the Fijian-born Vakatawa, their most dangerous player on the wing. Fullback Brice Dulin will also look to counter attack anytime the Springboks spray him with aimless kicking.
A defeat to France would extend the Springboks losing streak to five matches, which hasn’t occurred since 2006. However, the Springboks haven’t lost at Loftus since 2006 (All Blacks) and they should be able to get their season off to a good start with a hard-fought win over the French. I expect them to pull away late in the second half, with their Lions players showing the way.
Predicted result: South Africa to win by 10 @ $1.32 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 1: South Africa -5.5 @ $1.82 – Tab.co.nz (early twitter play)