It was a case of “close, but no cigar” last weekend, as Ireland, Wales and England all went down fighting against southern hemisphere opposition. Expect more of the same on Saturday, in the third and final round of summer rugby internationals against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa respectively.
Fired up by their narrow defeat in Australia last week, the dragons in the Welsh side will be eager to grab revenge this time around. Wales came within one kick of landing their first Test win Down Under since 1969 in Australia, and they remain the European team with the best chance of avoiding a 3-0 series whitewash.
Coach Rob Howley has gone with the same starting XV that lost 25-23 to a final-minute penalty in Melbourne. This was agonising for the Taffs, but good for any Unibet punters who followed my tips last week: I recommended an All Blacks-Wallabies-Springbok accumulator, with a cheeky five-point score handicap bet on the Welsh on the side.
Wales, ranked the fourth best international side in the world, are 2.45 to beat Australia this time round in Sydney; against by far the weakest of the Tri-Nations teams, this could be the upset of the summer series.
"This Wales team was within around 30 seconds of beating the Wallabies on their home patch for the first time in 43 years,” Howley said this week. "The challenge now is to go one better than that and make sure we are ahead on the scoreboard, not just when the hooter goes but when the game finishes this weekend. It will be scant consolation if we don't come home with a win in this series.”
In Leigh Halfpenny, the Wales side has a kicker who has already managed to score more international points than even 1970s great Phil Bennett, with 168 points in 34 games. Expect the full-back to be deadly with penalties, even from up to 50 metres from the posts.
Australia coach Robbie Deans has made two changes to his side, recalling full-back Kurtley Beale and starting Sitaleki Timani at lock forward.
Ireland, too, defied all odds last week against the world champions New Zealand, losing 22-19 to a late Dan Carter dropgoal. But even with a slightly experimental-looking home side being fielded in Hamilton this time, expect nothing more than a “Black-wash” for this series. Carter is ruled out of this game through injury, and will be replaced by Aaron Cruden. But it is in the forward line where New Zealand will look unusual: they switch Richie McCaw, their captain and the world’s best flanker, to play at No8 for the first time, and give Test debuts to Sam Cane and lock forward Luke Romano.
Ireland look significantly weakened by the injury to Jamie Heaslip, who is replaced at No8 by Peter O’Mahoney. Centre Paddy Wallace and wing Keith Earls come in for Gordon D'Arcy and Andrew Trimble.
New Zealand can’t be opposed at 1.08, but Ireland at 1.90 with a 16-point handicap against the Carter-less All Blacks looks like a bet well worth having.
There will be no such optimism for the prospects of the battered and bloody England side which managed a tremendous fightback in Johannesburg last Saturday. With inspirational skipper Chris Robshaw ruled out with injury and coach Stuart Lancaster having to juggle his options after four tough tour matches in just two weeks, the patched-up England side will do well to repeat the Jo’burg heroics.
Alex Goode gets his first international start at full back in Port Elizabeth this week, which displaces Ben Foden from his better position to the wing. Leicester’s Thomas Waldrom comes into the side at No8, while there are recalls for scrum half Danny Care and flanker James Haskell.
The Springboks are so relaxed about the prospect of a 3-0 series win that they have given centre Frans Steyn the weekend off for his wedding. Jacques Potgieter makes his debut at open-side flanker, Gio Aplon comes in at full-back for Pat Lambie and Wynand Olivier takes over for Steyn.
The 1.20 offered on a Saffies win looks positively generous under the circumstances; even with a 10-point handicap for England, 1.85 does not tempt. In fact, 1.95 on South Africa to win by more than 10 points may be the better option.
The rugby accumulator this week should be New Zealand, South Africa and Wales.