In rugby parlance, this weekend is a case of facing the unknown in the top competitions in the southern hemisphere and also in the Six Nations and the World Cup Sevens.
Rugby for the year 2020 went into overdrive from this weekend. And there are many questions and uncertainties that will only be answered as the various competitions progress in a rugby year that will only end in December.
Super Rugby kicked off on Friday, and with the Six Nations Championship and the Varsity Cup will join the World Rugby Sevens and the top overseas (Northern) competitions such as the Premiership, the PRO14, the Top 14 and the European Challenge Cup and European Challenge that are all some way into their fixture lists, as are the World Rugby Sevens..
While the Southern Hemisphere’s top competition, the Super Rugby series, kicked off first (see below) the main weekend focus will probably be on the Six Nations where new players, new captains and four new coaches attract attention.
Of the “newcomers” to the year’s rugby deluge the Six Nations will have four new coaches with only Scotland and England retaining Gregory Townsend and Eddie one respectively.
All six countries have lost players to retirement, injury or cross-border migration to make them ineligible for three various sides with their different selection provisos.
Wales vs Italy – Principality Stadium, Saturday 16:15
This year’s first Six Nations weekend starts off with the match between defending champions Wales and perennial wooden spoonists Italy. It is almost two years since Wales last lost a Championship match and they will start as obvious favourites against Italy, despite the many injuries that have affected team selection.
Wayne Pivac is the new Wales coach following the departure of Warren Gatland’ after 12 years, while Italy is coached by former Cheetahs coach Franco Smith.
The great Alun Wyn Jones is back to lead Wales as he chases 150 test caps, but legendary Italy captain Sergio Parisse who is not in Smith’s squad, is succeeded as captain by hooker Luca Bigi.
Italy have lost their last 22 successive matches in the Championship.
Wales, playing away, beat Italy 26-15 in Cardiff last year.
Ireland vs Scotland – Aviva Stadium, Saturday 18:45
Irelands new coach, Andy Farrell, follows Joe Schmidt in the Ireland hot seat as coach while Ireland has some continuity in this respect with Gregor Townsend still the head coach. But again, both sides will run on with a number of changes from last year. This includes a new Scotland captain this year in two-time Player of the Championship Stuart Hogg.
Ireland’s long-serving hooker and captain Rory Best has retired and flyhalf Johnny Sexton takes over the captaincy.
Ireland have not lost to Scotland in Dublin since 2010.
France vs England – Stade de France, Sunday 17:00
New France coach Fabian Galthie has selected a young side with their backline in particular leaving England supporters with some reservations whether Eddie Jones’ side will be up to the task.
The Saracens issue has also clouded England’s preparations with four players from the shamed club in the England side, including their captain Owen Farrell.
France, with a new captain, flank Charles Ollivon, have an average of less than 15 caps and an average age of only 24 per player in the starting XV that include two South African born players, Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse, at lock.
England, who have their share of injuries, will be without key No 8 Billy Vunipola, who broke his arm again during Saracens' European Champions Cup win over Racing 92 last week. They have also lost winger Anthony Watson on Thursday with a calf injury.
The Super Rugby season started with new coach Warren Gatland, formerly the man who made Wales a real forced in his 12 years in Cardiff, watching his new team the Chiefs beat the Blues after slow start in Auckland on Friday. The score was 37-29.
Both teams were without key players, the most influential being All Blacks flyhalf/fullback Beauden Barrett who won’t play for his new team the Blues before April because of a clause in his contract, and lock Brodie Retallick who is on sabbatical, playing rugby in Japan this season.
The Blues, in their last match last season, broke a string of 15 losses to the Chiefs and the match on Friday seemed to go the same way with Rieko Ioane back to his best.
However, after leading 19-5 at the break, the Chiefs got their act together and wo 37-29, with All Black returnee Aaron Cruden the catalyst. The flyhalf came on after the break and got his backline moving in impressive fashion.
♦ In the second match on Friday, the Brumbies beat the Reds 27-24 in Canberra after trailing at the break after scoring 20 unanswered points before they conceded a late try to bring the match to a thrilling end.
Playing without the experience of retired Wallabies David Pocock, Christian Lealiifano, Rory Arnold and Sam Carter this season, the Brumbies trailed 17-7 at half-time but scored 20 unanswered points before a late converted try set up a thrilling finish after the full-time siren.
The Reds also had a number of new faces in their squad but once the new-look Brumbies, Australia’s top side last year, gelled after the break, they were simply too good.
♦ The Sharks, at home, put stop to a winless run of nine matches against the Sharks and won a scrappy match, spoiled by especially too many handling errors, The score was 23-15, with a try by replacement debutante scrumhalf Sanel Nohamba in the last seconds denying the Bulls a bonus point.
Playing at this time of the year with the humidity and resultant slippery ball, does rugby no favours. Sanzaar, not good at reading any situation, could perhaps be coaxed into changing kick-off time at Kings Park to other time slots next season.
Remaining Super Rugby matches this weekend -
Sunwolves vs Rebels (06:45); Crusaders vs Waratahs (08:05); Stormers vs Hurricanes (15:05)
Jaguares vs Lions (01:00).
This match will be especially interesting because of the Lions struggles in past fixtures to bring back the spoils from Argentina.
On Monday the Varsity Cup kicks off with 2019’s losing finalists, UP Tuks, facing semi-finalists NWU-Pukke at Tuks Stadium (16:45) with both teams under new head coaches.
Tuks have former veteran lock Nico Luus taking over the reins while former Bok flyhalf André Pretorius is in charge of the Pukke.
Defending champions Maties, also with a new coach in former Western Province player Drikus Hancke following Hawies Fourie’s departure to coach the Cheetahs, are at home to the Shimlas (kick-off 18:45)
This match is followed at 19:00 by perennial under-performers UJ who are at home to the Ikey Tigers, while Wits (also at 19:00) have a tough away match against UWC who is now coached by former assistant coach Lionel Langenhoven after the passing of the former Springbok Chester Williams.
CUT have their bye in the first round.