Preparations for the Rugby World Cup step up a level this week with 10 of the participating sides playing test matches, as players look to impress coaches ahead of the announcement of the final tournament squads at the end of August.
Among the nations playing are the four semifinalists from 2015 as the Rugby Championship enters its second week.
New Zealand (winner of the Webb Ellis Trophy on three occasions and two-time defending champion) plays host to South Africa (RWC winner in 1995 and 2007) in a dress rehearsal for their Pool B game on Sept. 21 in Yokohama, perhaps the most anticipated of all the pool matches, while Australia takes on Argentina.
The All Blacks and Springboks opened their Rugby Championship campaign in winning style last week, with the Kiwis edging out Argentina 20-16 and the South Africans downing Australia 35-17.
And with both sides looking to get a psychological advantage, the game in Wellington is set to be a physical one.
“I think it’s going to be a fiery one, yeah,” All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick told New Zealand media.
“The way that the All Blacks have approached it . . . and South Africa sent some of their boys straight here — there will be some fresh bodies so no doubt there’s going to be plenty of energy.
“They won last time here in Wellington and obviously we want to be winning every time so I guess it will be a big one. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Meanwhile, the Wallabies and Pumas will be looking to build confidence particularly in light of the tough draws the two teams have been given at the World Cup.
Argentina is in Pool C alongside England, the only Northern Hemisphere country to have won the World Cup, and France, runner-up on three occasions, while Australia is in Pool D along with Wales and Fiji.
On Saturday, the Flying Fijians take on Japan in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, in the Pacific Nations Cup. And they do so having split a two-game series with the Maori All Blacks.
“The PNC is very important to us as the current title holders and we want to maintain our position as the top team across the tournament,” said Fiji coach John McKee. “With the depth in our squad, we can balance preparing for the World Cup.”
Other matchups this weekend see the United States (coached by former Kobe Kobelco Steelers boss Gary Gold) take on Canada, while Japanese fans will be keeping an eye on Samoa vs. Tonga.
The Samoans are pooled with the Brave Blossoms in Pool A at the World Cup, while the Tongans, who play Japan in Osaka on Aug. 3 in the PNC have a number of men on their management staff — such as Toutai Kefu, Pita Alatini and Grant Doorey — with plenty of experience of playing and coaching here.
While the players are literally playing for their World Cup spots, the men in charge of the games are looking to get accustomed to the pace of international rugby and implementing a recent law change.
World Rugby recently announced the officials for the pool games with Nigel Owens set to referee the opening match between Japan and Russia on Sept. 20.
“Last week I was out in Japan for a referee’s training camp. As well as the on-the-field stuff, it was also a chance for some team-bonding and a look at the off-the-field stuff too,” the Welshman said in a column this week for Wales Online.
“It’s a totally different culture in Japan and it’s important to understand that things which are acceptable here could offend over there. The Japanese will be wonderful, welcoming hosts for sure but it’s worth you knowing a bit about their culture — especially from a respect point of view — before you travel out there for the Rugby World Cup.”
Owens went on to say that “as well as the cultural side of things, the camp covered the technical aspects of the game too.”
At the top of the list of the technical aspects was a new scrum law banning what is called “pre-loading” — where front rows press their heads into the shoulders of the opposition between the “bind” and “set” calls in the scrum.
But it’s immediate implementation, due to safety concerns, has not been well received by one of the coaches involved this weekend.
“Don’t agree at all,” Gold tweeted. “How can a front row keep the space, & also get a legal long bind. This is not mechanically possible!! Apologies to the Science gurus, who BTW I think have many other issues spot on, but this time it is impracticable and a box ticking exercise.”
The 10 games this weekend and the many to follow over the next month or so as the teams finalize their preparations for the World Cup will tell whether he is right or not.
Rich Freeman writes about rugby for Kyodo News and can be heard talking about it during Sunwolves’ home games.