Not since 2019, when New Zealand vs Ireland and England vs Australia played out in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup, has world rugby faced such a weekend of rugby.
This Saturday, New Zealand play Ireland, Australia play England, South Africa play Wales, and Argentina play Scotland.
All in series that are tied at 1-1; all matches that will decide who walks away series winner.
For world rugby to be on such even footing between hemispheres, has to be beyond the wildest expectations of neutral rugby fans. Here’s a look at each of these matches, and their implications for the impending World Cup next year.
New Zealand vs. Ireland
The day’s play starts with perhaps the biggest clash of them all.
Can Ireland well and truly make history, by backing up their record-breaking performance last week, and beating New Zealand in New Zealand, for the second week in a row?
The All Blacks have named a strong team to prevent such an upset occurring, with Sam Whitelock coming back into the starting line up, Scott Barrett shifting back to blindside flanker, David Havili slotting into the mid-field, and Will Jordan taking the right wing. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck makes his All Black’s debut off the bench, while Dane Coles and Akira Ioane return to bolster the Kiwi’s second-half prospects.
Ireland on the other hand have remained stable, only making one change with the block-busting Bundee Aki moving into the mid-field to replace concussed Gary Ringrose, and Keith Earls moving into the squad on the bench.
While Ireland come into this game as the underdogs, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, the All Blacks will be feeling considerable pressure. A year out from the World Cup, coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane will be squirming at the prospect of a series loss at home.
Australia vs. England
After a valiant effort playing under a red card in Test one, Australia were outplayed by their English counterparts last week, creating a mouth watering contest this weekend.
The silver lining of Australia’s loss last week is tickets have sold out for this Saturday’s clash at the SCG, a welcome sign for Australian rugby after several tough years. The Aussie’s will be after a much faster start in front of the full house however, having gone down 0-19 to the English in last week’s match.
A handful of changes have been made by Dave Rennie, most notably bringing Reece Hodge and Harry Wilson into the starting line-up for the first time this year, while also welcoming back Allan Alaalatoa and Len Ikitau to the bench.
For England, Eddie Jones has relegated Jack van Poortvliet to the bench, despite his strong debut in last weekend’s 25-17 win over Australia. Danny Care replaces him in the starting line-up, alongside Ollie Chessum and Lewis Ludlam who cover Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill, both victims of concussion.
In a game that could go either way, you’d hope for the health of Australian rugby, the home crowd sees their team across the line in this one.
South Africa vs. Wales
Many South African fans have decried last weekend’s team against Wales, claiming it was a B-team to build depth for the World Cup.
Such rhetoric may have merit, as Rassie Erasmus has made 10 changes to the team that lost to Wales 12-13 last Saturday. Handre Pollard, Jaden Hendrikse, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, and Trevor Nyakane are the only survivors of the wholesale changes, with Siya Kolisi back to captaining the team and Etzebeth playing his 100th match.
Wales, however, only make one change, with both Dan Biggar and Dillon Lewis cleared to play after they left the field early in the second Test. Josh Adams comes in for injured Alex Cuthbert on the wing, in a team that remains stable otherwise.
Time will tell whether South Africa’s rotation policy will cost them a home series defeat or if their full-strength team is enough to blow away the Welsh in this deciding game.
Argentina vs. Scotland
In the final of Saturday’s inter-hemisphere clashes, Argentina will be seeking a much-improved performance after being systematically demolished by a classy Scottish side last weekend.
Coach Michael Cheika was clearly unhappy with the second Test performance, making a whopping 11 changes to the Argentine team. Pablo Matera steps into the role of captain yet again, while Juan Cruz Mallia slots into fullback, Bautista Delguy into wing, Matias Moroni at centre and Lautaro Bazan Velez debuts at half-back.
Scotland have also made a host of changes, with eight alterations to last week’s winning team, split evenly across the forwards and backs. Notably, Rory Sutherland receives his first start of the tour at loosehead prop, while Ollie Smith makes his Test debut replacing the injured Rory Hutchinson at fullback.
For the seventh and ninth placed teams in world rugby, a win here will be a huge boost for the either side’s confidence heading into a Rugby World Cup where quarter-final qualification will be the aim.