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Reece in the limelight as World Cup looms large over international rugby season kick-off

The tick-tock of Rugby World Cup countdown is getting louder, though New Zealand and South Africa are holding back on opening weekend.

THE WORLD CUP year may be seven and a half months old, but the international season in which it will culminate clanks into gear this weekend.

Granted, it is set up to be a soft opening. Yet as the southern hemisphere heavyweights get strapped up for action, even the punches they are holding back will provide telling traits and a touch of intrigue for the big dance in Japan.

The countdown clock is down to 62 days.

Webb Ellis Trophy The All Blacks celebrate with the Webb Ellis trophy in Twickenham. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With that tick-tock on their ear-drums, both New Zealand and South Africa have taken the quite understandable decision to take a host of front-liners out the opening weekend’s equation.

The quartet of teams clashing in the Rugby Championship are the 2015 quarter-finalists, they know there are bigger days ahead.

New Zealand expect bigger days than anyone, of course, and it has been curious to scan this week’s Kiwi press and find it ambling along without the All Blacks continually pinned front and centre. The heartbreak of the Cricket World Cup final instead dominated the early portion of the week, with even the rugby shows lamenting events in Lord’s until Ali Williams ruefully shrugged it off with a ‘the Poms can have this one as long as we get the next one.’

The low-key build-up in New Zealand is partly Steve Hansen’s doing as he flagged from a long way out that tomorrow’s Test in Buenos Aires would be an experimental line-up. The reigning world champion coach must be quietly delighted to keep a relatively stealthy presence in the press, however, as the fast-tracked redemption of Sevu Reece has raised an array of questions over the mass-marketed All Black ethos.

Reece has been a sensation in Super Rugby this season after a case of domestic abuse against him was dropped. The almost-Connacht wing was awarded a place in ABs setup exactly a year and a day after being arrested and charged with assault after an incident with his girlfriend on a night out in Hamilton.

“Reece yelled at his partner to ‘shut up, in much more colourful language than that’, and chased her down the street, dragging her to the ground,” reported the New Zealand Herald’s Natalie Akoorie, “she suffered bruising to the side of her face and waist and bleeding to her knee.”

The Hamilton District court ultimately discharged the explosive rugby player without conviction. Reece was fined NZ$750 (€450) last October, with Judge Denise Clark saying: 

“It does appear to me the victim has forgiven you. You have acknowledged you have a problem with alcohol and have been sober for three months.”

Sevu Reece File photo: Reece scoring for the Crusaders this season. Source: John Davidson/INPHO

Beauden Barrett’s new contract and big switch from the Hurricanes to the Blues last week was also a helpful distraction that moved the media conversation away from Hansen’s clumsy handling of the Reece incident. The All Black head coach presented his experience as a police officer to state that domestic violence is not a gendered issue. He subsequently apologised in a better thought-out and more considered statement.

“Over the last few days it has become clear that my comments have come across to some people as being unsympathetic or minimising how poisonous and harmful domestic violence is for women,” he said.

In the eyes of the rugby men wearing silver ferns, that’s the matter closed then. And so Reece will make his international rugby debut this evening against Argentina in a New Zealand back-line that features both Beauden and Jordie Barrett – the younger brother deployed on the wing. With eight of the Super Rugby-winning Crusaders side rested, four more uncapped players are on the bench for a Test which offers the Pumas hope of a first-ever win over the All Blacks.

Super Rugby runners-up, the Jaguares, provide the core of Argentina’s starting line-up and only number 10 Nicolas Sanchez and prop Juan Figallo force their way into the starters from European clubs.

Along with New Zealand, the Springboks are likely opponents for Ireland when the World Cup quarter-finals roll around on 19 October, but before either side have to face Joe Schmidt, they must face off against one another in a tantalising clash in Yokohama on the tournament’s opening weekend.

This week’s selections show that the seismic 21 September fixture – a pool meeting for the first time in this tournament – casts a long shadow and Rassie Erasmus has shown his intent on laying down a marker by sending 15 players ahead to New Zealand while he presides over tomorrow’s opening Test against the Wallabies.

Erasmus brushed off any notion of disrespect to Michael Cheika’s embattled green and gold – insisting it was merely horses for courses and a matter of scheduling – and the Australia coach agreed.

“I don’t see it that way (as a South Africa B team),” said the former Leinster boss.

“We’ve heard their players say they aren’t taking this game for granted and we take them on their word for that.”

WALLABIES MICHAEL CHEIKA PRESSER Cheika poses in Brisbane after naming his squad for the Rugby Championship. Source: AAP/PA Images

Cheika is a man who openly invites pressure on himself and having finished as World Cup runner-up in 2015, he has vowed to ‘win or walk’ this year. In the very short term, he must crave Wallaby wins of any sort. He has celebrated just four wins in the last 15 Tests and last season fizzled out in November with defeats to Wales and England before their best player decided to post homophobic sentiments on social media. The sacking of Israel Folau has not stopped the affair from dragging on and on.

Brumbies star Tom Banks will draw plenty of spotlight as he pulls on the number 15 jersey this weekend. Another man rewarded for Super Rugby form is Fijian number 8 Isi Naisarani, who wins a debut cap after being named player of the season for the Reds.

Prop Harry Johnson-Holmes is a late addition hoping to make his debut off the bench, where he sits alongside Taniela Tupou who was shaken up after being robbed in Johannesburg.

He certainly won’t be the only one itching to get back on the international scene and forget about off-field issues. There’s no shortage of them for rugby right now.

South Africa v Australia (Saturday, kick-off 4.05pm, Sky Sports Action)Argentina v New Zealand (Saturday, kick–off 7.05 pm, Sky Sports Action)

South Africa: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 S’bu Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Herschel Jantjies: 1 Tendai Mtawarira, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 4 Eben Etzebeth (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 6 Rynhardt Elstadt, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 8 Francois Louw,

Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Marcell Coetzee, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds

Australia: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Reece Hodge, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nic White; 1 James Slipper, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 3 Sekope Kepu, 4 Izack Rodda, 5 Rory Arnold, 6 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Michael Hooper (captain, 8 Isi Naisarani. 

Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Rob Simmons, 20 Jack Dempsey, 21 Will Genia, 22 Matt To’omua, 23 Kurtley Beale.

**

Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli; 14 Matias Moroni, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Ramiro Moyano; 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Tomas Cubelli: 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2 Agustin Creevy, 3 Juan Figallo; 4 Guido Petti, 5 Tomas Lavanini; 6 Pablo Matera (captain), 7 Marcos Kremer, 8 Javier Ortega Desio.

Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Mayco Vivas, 18 Santiago Medrano, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Tomas Lezana, 21 Felipe Ezcurra, 22 Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, 23 Joaquin Tuculet

New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Jordie Barrett, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith: 1 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Dane Coles, 3 Angus Ta’avao; 4 Brodie Retallick, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 6 Vaea Fifita, 7 Sam Cane (captain) 8 Ardie Savea,

Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Atu Moli, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Luke Jacobson, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Braydon Ennor.

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Sean Farrell

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