As a proud Kiwi and Sky Sports’ frontman for all oval-ball-related matters of the Southern Hemisphere, it is little wonder James Gemmell speaks so passionately about the Rugby Championship. One of its protagonists has bombed spectacularly thus far; Australia have just one win in five games, and face an away trip to a rampant Springbok outfit this weekend. It is only going to get worse before it gets better.
“The hole that they’re in is pretty deep, and it’s about to be made even deeper against South Africa,” says Gemmell. “The problem for Australia is deeper than just personnel – it’s more about confidence and self-belief. They’re at the stage where they don’t trust each other. They’re a shadow of their former selves and it’s pretty sad to watch right now.”
Hold on – a New Zealander admitting to feeling sorry for the Australians? Things must be serious. As Gemmell notes, there is a lack of trust and belief in the squad, which cripples them both on and off the pitch.
“O’Connor, Beale, Cooper – these are the so-called ‘world class’ players,” he notes. “The guys that steal the headlines are also the ones that seem to have a bit of off-field trouble. If you look at New Zealand, and their truly world class players like McCaw and Carter, they’re also really good leaders and role-models within the team.
“Australia are in a bit of a rut, where their star players, who you look to on the pitch, are getting suspended because they’re out on the booze – what kind of example does that set to some of the younger guys in the team? They swan about like they’re god’s gift. That leadership and culture problem is a big issue at the moment.
“They don’t really have the depth in terms of player resources. It would be lovely if they could just say to a guy like O’Connor ‘you’re not so important that you can behave like this and treat the jersey like this, so we’re going to drop you in favour of someone else who is as good as you’.”
Controversy has been rife in the tournament so far, with wrongly-dished out red cards and drunken airport escapades to the fore, but Gemmell is keen to point out that, actually, some of the rugby on show has been pretty newsworthy too. Certainly, there is plenty to look forward to over the next couple of weeks – and it doesn’t come much bigger than South Africa v New Zealand in next weekend’s final round.
“I’ve got a vested interest as a Kiwi, but I think if you’re a rugby fan anywhere, that game should be as high on your agenda as any,” says Gemmell. It’s the two best teams in the world by a long way, and for what it means to both of them, it’s probably as big as that opening Lions test. You add in South Africa’s grievances over the red card, and it has all the makings of an absolute classic.”
That red card has, sadly, dominated the post-match reaction from the last round, with many claiming the crowd in New Zealand swayed referee Romain Poite. Gemmell isn’t so sure.
“If we’re looking at the red card in isolation, the second yellow card was completely justified,” he says. “I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that it was Daniel Carter that he tackled, and I don’t necessarily think that it would have not happened somewhere else (outside of NZ). He definitely got it wrong – there’s no doubt about that – but I don’t think he would have got it right if it was another team in another part of the world.”
He does admit, however, that the All Blacks, and a certain world-class flanker, have been known to put pressure on referees in the past.
“I do appreciate that McCaw might have a bit of sway over officials, because he is such an important figure within the game,” he admits. “I actually think in the game a few weeks ago, against Australia with Jaco Peyper (the South African referee in charge), it was obvious that New Zealand were infringing almost at will because they knew Peyper wasn’t going to sin-bin anybody. That for me was a concern because the Kiwis are masters of disrupting opposition ball, and doing it illegally.”
And what of Argentina? Gemmell says the improvements they have made are obvious, and with some big names missing from the Kiwi line-up this weekend they could pose the champions a real threat in La Plata.
“The improvement is when they’re at home, with the confidence and self-belief they now have,” he says. “You can hear it with Lobbe (their captain) in post-match interviews – there’s a resolve about them. They no longer want the patronising ‘oh aren’t they doing well, they deserve their place, they keep coming close’ – they’re past that now.
“They lack a little bit of polish and class in the backs – the speed of hands, the fleet of foot, the vision – all the things the Kiwis have because they’ve played together their entire lives. They don’t have that yet, so they don’t tend to pose a threat with ball in hand in open play.”
All that said, New Zealand are missing some serious personnel this weekend, and Gemmell says the Pumas should not be written off.
“No Carter, no McCaw, potentially no Read (currently suffering from an illness) – suddenly, this is a proper banana skin for New Zealand. I would say it’s less likely that Australia will beat South Africa than Argentina will beat New Zealand.”
The mouth-watering prospect of a potential winner-takes-all clash in the final round provides in intriguing backdrop to this weekend’s games. Both South Africa and New Zealand are expected to emerge as relatively comfortable winners, but with one eye on next weekend, whether that is the case remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though – at Ellis Park in a week’s time, we are set for one of the great games of our time. Don’t miss it.
Sky Sports will be showing Round 5 of The Rugby Championship, Saturday 28 September on Sky Sports 2 HD from 3.15pm
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images