It’s all to play for in the 2022 Rugby Championship this weekend, with the title on the line as the tournament comes to its climax on Saturday.
The four Southern Hemisphere nations have slugged it out over five rounds already, with some eye-popping results creating a competitive log to the last.
New Zealand and South Africa hold the aces in the battle for top spot as they host Australia and Argentina respectively, with the latter two still out to cause one last upset on a day of drama.
New Zealand vs Australia
The closing chapter on a tale of redemption is there to be written for New Zealand, as they lock horns one last time with Trans-Tasman rivals Australia in the Rugby Championship on Saturday.
Eden Park is the venue as the All Blacks look to move on from simply saving the skin of coach Ian Foster, to claim what looked at one time to be an unlikely piece of silverware.
Two defeats in their first three left them reeling, not least a shambles on home turf against unfancied Argentina, but they are favourites to come out on top if they can slay the Wallabies in Auckland.
A head injury to captain Sam Cane sees Sam Whitelock step in to skipper the hosts, with Scott Barrett, David Havili and Quinn Tupaea all among those also missing out.
Ardie Savea slots back in at eighth man, while Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane form an exciting midfield pairing for the Bledisloe Cup winners.
Revenge is the order of the day for the Aussies, who were scuppered a week ago by a refereeing clanger that paved the way for the Kiwis’ 39-37 comeback win in Melbourne.
Darcy Swain is a casualty entirely of his own making for the finale, having been cited in the week and banned for six weeks, following his mindless challenge on Tupaea at a ruck.
Cadeyrn Neville more than fills his place, physically at least, while Harry Wilson is also included as a starter in the eight jersey for coach Dave Rennie.
New Zealand Starting XV: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Jordie Barrett, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Dalton Papali’i, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Samuel Whitelock (captain), 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Ethan de Groot.
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Tupou Vaa’i, 20 Hoskins Sotutu, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 23 Sevu Reece.
Australia Starting XV: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Tom Wright, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Lalakai Foketi, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Harry Wilson, 7 Pete Samu, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 David Porecki, 1 James Slipper (captain).
Replacements: 16 Folau Fainga’a, 17 Angus Bell, 18 Pone Fa’amausili, 19 Nick Frost, 20 Fraser McReight, 21 Nic White, 22 Reece Hodge, 23 Jordan Petaia.
South Africa vs Argentina
The 2022 Rugby Championship title is within the grasp of South Africa, as they host Argentina in the final fixture of the competition on Saturday in Durban.
Last weekend’s battling victory over Los Pumas in Buenos Aires put the Springboks level on points with improving New Zealand.
That means it’s a case of doing the business at Kings Park while overturning a points difference disadvantage to the All Blacks, provided they don’t slip up at home to Australia earlier in the day.
All very doable for coach Jacques Nienaber and his troops, who have come in for criticism at times during an up-and-down campaign across the Southern Hemisphere, not least with their World Cup defence looming on the horizon next year.
Frans Steyn will lug his old bones around at fly-half, pretty much by default as the last man in the squad standing, in the latest Nienaber selection to cause consternation among Bok fans.
A return to a split on the bench with only two backline players leaves the equally head-scratching prospect of Faf de Klerk as the replacement at ten, should anything befall 35-year-old Steyn.
Much more conventional is the return of former World Rugby Player of The Year Pieter Steph du Toit, while Bongi Mbonambi makes it back as far as the bench just in time.
Coach Michael Cheika makes two starting changes to his Argentina side, as Matias Moroni is restored in the midfield.
Juan Imhoff is also included on the left wing, as Los Pumas attempt to burgle a third win of their own topsy-turvy competition.
South Africa Starting XV: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Frans Steyn, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, , 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siyamthanda Kolisi (captain), 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 17 Retshegofaditswe Nche, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Duane Vermeulen, 21 Albertus Smith, 22 Francois de Klerk, 23 Kurt-Lee Arendse.
Argentina Starting XV: 15 Juan Cruz Mallia, 14 Emiliano Boffelli, 13 Matias Moroni, 12 Jeronimo De La Fuente, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Santiago Carreras, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Pablo Matera, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Juan Martin Gonzalez, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Matias Alemanno, 3 Eduardo Bello, 2 Julian Montoya (captain), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.
Replacements: 16 Agustin Creevy, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Joel Sclavi, 19 Guido Petti, 20 Pedro Rubiolo, 21 Tomas Cubelli, 22 Benjamin Urdapilleta, 23 Bautista Delguy.
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