The four home nations will soon travel South to test their mettle against the World's top three sides and giant-slayers Japan. Who should they be doing their homework on?
By Alex Shaw
With European finals and domestic play-offs approaching, the conclusion of the northern hemisphere season is nigh and attention is beginning to shift towards the home nations’ summer tours.
England and Wales have three-match tours to the Antipodes lined-up, facing Australia and New Zealand respectively, whilst Ireland are also heading south for a three-match series, to take on South Africa. Scotland round off the summer schedule with a two-match tour of Japan.
With no international rugby for the southern hemisphere nations (plus Japan) since the Rugby World Cup last year, rugby fans, coaches and journalists alike are treating this year’s Super Rugby competition as the most useful form guide as to how the All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks and Cherry Blossoms will all perform this summer.
We take a look below at some of the competition’s more impressive performers so far this season and identify who could be the architects of the home nations’ downfall in June.
New Zealand v Wales
1st Test Auckland, 11 June,
2nd Test Wellington, 18 June,
3rd Test, Dunedin, 25 June)
Damian McKenzie, Chiefs and New Zealand
The irrepressible full-back is currently uncapped but even given the riches New Zealand have at their disposal in the 15 jersey, he will surely feature at some point this summer. Heading into Round 10, Damian McKenzie leads Super Rugby in tries (seven), points (120), metres (621) and defenders beaten (36), as well as being just shy of the summit in offloads (14) and clean breaks (15). If the stats are not enough, he has also certainly passed the eye test, playing with complete composure and awareness, and doing things with a rugby ball that his potential Welsh adversaries can only dream of.
It is testament to McKenzie’s impact this season that there is talk of moving the world’s undisputed best full-back, Ben Smith, back to a spot on the wing, and that the resurgent Israel Dagg will have to bide his time before once again donning the silver fern. With no Dan Carter anymore, the reliable boot of McKenzie could allow Steve Hansen the luxury of removing place-kicking concerns from his decisions at fly-half, something which could work in the favour of Beauden Barrett.
Charlie Ngatai, Chiefs and New Zealand
A shoulder injury may be hampering Ngatai right now, but he should be fit and firing once again long before Wales arrive in the Land of the Long White Cloud. The inside centre hasn’t just been knocking down doors in the Chiefs midfield, he’s been bringing down entire houses with his barnstorming runs and, critically, is showing the speed of thought and distribution skills to turn those holes into chasms with his passing and offloading.
Ma’a Nonu has moved to France and Sonny Bill Williams is focused on the upcoming Olympics in Rio, suddenly propelling the in-form Ngatai into pole position to step into the All Blacks’ inside-centre void. Lima Sopoaga, George Moala and Ryan Crotty are other options, but all three are a significant way off the early season form of Ngatai.
Australia v England
1st Test, 11th June, Brisbane
2nd Test, 18th June, Melbourne3rd Test, 25th June, Sydney
Sean McMahon, Rebels and Australia
The 21-year-old flanker has led the Rebels to the top of the Australian conference and is receiving backing from all quarters to cement himself into a new-look Australian back row. To be the standout openside flanker in a conference which also boasts David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Matt Hodgson is quite something and McMahon may be forcing Michael Cheika’s hand with his constant breakdown pilfering and ability to find or create gaps in defences.
Cheika has already hinted that he may field three natural opensides in his back row to take on England, whilst others have suggested that Hooper’s form has not been good enough and that McMahon should take his spot alongside Pocock and Scott Fardy. Either way, it seems probable that the former Australia U20 captain will be heavily involved with the Wallabies this summer and will likely come face-to-face with Maro Itoje, the man who led England to knock McMahon’s U20 side out of the Junior World Championship two years ago.
South Africa v Ireland
1st Test, 11th June, Cape Town
2nd Test, 18th June, Johannesburg
3rd Test, 25th June, Port Elizabeth
Elton Jantjies, Lions and South Africa
Few will envy Allister Coetzee’s job of having to combine the goals of winning and transformation, all the while having to deal with an expectant fan base and a government that aren’t afraid to involve themselves in the affairs of sport. Thankfully for Springbok fans, that’s a combination Coetzee managed well with Western Province and the Stormers and in fly-half Jantjies, he has a player that ticks both boxes.
Handré Pollard will miss the series with Ireland through injury, whilst Pat Lambie is still recovering from a dislocated shoulder which has seen him unable to feature in Super Rugby thus far this season. Jantjies is the standout fly-half in South African rugby right now and has been spearheading the very ambitious style of rugby that the Lions like to play under Johan Ackermann. He can also kick well and defend solidly, like any South African fly-half worth his salt, but the high-tempo and expansive style he likes to employ could be what gives him the edge over the competition and makes him a very troublesome thorn in Ireland’s side this summer.
Japan v Scotland
1st Test, 18th June, Aichi
2nd Test, 25th June, Tokyo
Harumichi Tatekawa, Sunwolves and Japan
The reality is that large swathes of the Brave Blossoms squad will not come from the Sunwolves, rather the Japanese Top League, but playmaking centre Harumichi Tatekawa is a player that, barring injury, should certainly line up against Scotland in June. A former fly-half, Tatekawa has been playing solidly at outside centre in an earnest but under-equipped Sunwolves side this season and has definitely been one of the more impressive players in the team.
However, it is no coincidence that a move to inside centre for Tatekawa pre-empted the Tokoyo-based franchise’s first ever victory in Super Rugby, as they defeated the Jaguares in Round 9, 36-28. At inside centre the Sunwolves make better use of Tatekawa’s distribution skills, and that was evident as he pulled the strings alongside Tusi Pisi and found significant holes in the Jaguares’ defence. The likes of Duncan Taylor and Mark Bennett will need to be on their toes defensively in June, lest this dual-threat centre expose them as well.
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