Rugby Championship 2014 – opening rounds

Posted: August 21, 2014 in Rugby Championship 2014

Australia vs New Zealand:  Final Score – Aus 12/NZ 12
Sydney

As mentioned above the weather dominated both initial rounds of the Rugby Championship this past weekend, and although conditions in Sydney were not as horrendous as in Pretoria, they nevertheless played a significant part in reducing the spectacle that so many felt this game had the potential to offer.  That the match ended in a draw and given the fact that Australia played a good second half in which they had the majority of possession, alarm bells will be ringing for Australian management despite the weather conditions. I was surprised to see how well the Australian forward pack, which has been a serious Achilles heel for them in the last few years, held up against a tried and tested All Black forward pack. It will certainly be something to build on for this weekend’s clash in Auckland, and provided they can sort out the halfback issues could make this Australian side one to be reckoned with. They certainly have youth and talent on their side and are growing in confidence and experience with every outing.

My scepticism over choosing Kurtley Beale at number 10 was not removed during the course of the game and I was amazed to see that the Wallabies management has kept him in this crucial position in what will be much more challenging game this weekend.

New Zealand on the other hand finally had their winning streak broken, but still remain undefeated in a record 18 matches. However, they hardly looked the finished product despite the weather. South African referee Jaco Peyper was criticised for some questionable blows of the whistle and I agree that this reflects his lack of experience at this level of intensity of Test Rugby. Nevertheless he was particularly vigilant around the areas where New Zealand likes to play the game to the limits of the law. The result was New Zealand gave away far more penalties than they usually get, especially when under pressure. Richie McCaw was notable in getting extra attention from the officials at the ruck and breakdowns. Although many in New Zealand felt this was unwarranted I felt it is long overdue and also exposed several weaknesses in the New Zealand game plan. As I said in last week’s issue, New Zealand are no longer the all-conquering side of last year, and put them under sustained pressure and they start to lack discipline and their decision making starts to weaken. The All Blacks side on display in Sydney was not the composed team of 2013 who were able to stay calm and keep their patience till the right opportunities became available. New Zealand’s defence under an increasingly relentless Australian attack started to look frayed and tired in the last twenty minutes of the game.

Still at the end of the day, Australia failed to finish off New Zealand and take the win and thus the All Blacks still remain the team to beat not just in this competition but on any stage in the global game. Australia will have to work on their finishing and the All Blacks at home will have to find that missing ingredient to reward the belief that a home crowd expects them to honor.

South Africa vs Argentina: Final score – SA 13/Arg 6
Pretoria

In a game marred by apocalyptic weather of biblical proportions which in turn made the pitch almost reminiscent of a water polo field than a rugby ground, South Africa received yet another wakeup call from a very impressive Argentinian side.  As mentioned above the weather was truly atrocious featuring hail and a downpour that forced many of the determined spectators looking for the nearest ark and all but the most hardy to eventually leave the stands and seek shelter. Despite this we witnessed a thrilling encounter at times and one which although the Springboks won, I would argue showcased the talent and skills of the Pumas much more.

South Africa struggled at times and I for one do not accept that it was down to the weather messing up their plans. If that is the case then they might as well not bother showing up for games this November in Europe and ultimately the World Cup in England next year. Argentina created far more opportunities than the Springboks and if it were not for conditions making for near impossible ball handling at times, the score line would very much have been in the Pumas favour. Nicolas Sanchez at Number 10 was simply outstanding and showed the other three teams what they were lacking in this crucial halfback position – the man was quite simply everywhere on the pitch and making excellent decisions to boot.  The Argentinian forward pack completely outplayed their South African counterparts and despite the conditions managed unlike the Springboks to consistently maintain their footing and overpower the vaunted front row of the Boks. Sorry Heineke Meyer there is no excuse for that especially given the depth of experience in South Africa’s front three. Argentina showed their ability to adapt to the atrocious conditions whereas South Africa looked frustrated throughout the entire 80 minutes and looked surprised every time they kicked away possession to the hungry Argentinian backs who consistently punched huge holes in the South African defence despite the slippery surface.

South Africa have huge experience in their squad and should have been able to mold their game plan to the situation they were faced with. Yes there were brief flashes of brilliance, the one try that was scored through the increasingly impressive Cornal Hendricks linking up with Ruan Pienaar, showed their pedigree and ultimately clinched the game, but for the rest of the game it was sadly absent.

In contrast it was the Pumas who were the exciting and inspirational team to watch – which to be honest they so often are even if this is not translated into a winning record.

In short, an uninspiring South African victory set against an impressive Argentinian display which will only add enormous confidence and motivation to the Pumas when they take on the Springboks in much more favourable conditions in Argentina in front of a passionate and vocal home crowd.

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Australia – Auckland

This hopefully will be the cracker everyone predicted last weekend, provided the weather holds which in New Zealand at this time of the year is never a certainty. However if we do get a dry ground, then this will probably be one of if not THE game of the tournament.

After last weekend both teams have everything to prove. For the All Blacks in front of a home crowd it is proof that last weekend was a mere hiccough, while for Australia it is that the All Blacks are vulnerable and Australia is on the rise at the expense of their Tasman Strait rivals.

As mentioned in the analysis of the game, I am amazed that the Wallaby coaching staff have chosen to stick with Kurtley Beale at Number 10, instead of the much more reliable Bernard Foley. The All Blacks will be missing Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu and no doubt this will have an influence, however there is still so much depth in New Zealand’s reserves, Australia are unlikely to take comfort from this. Although many are predicting a narrow Australian win for the first time at Eden Park for a very long time, I still think at home the All Blacks will ultimately come out on top and be slightly better and more clinical in learning the lessons both teams needed to learn after this weekend.

Argentina vs South Africa – Salta

I can’t help feeling that this fixture is of equal stature and significance to the one taking place in Auckland this weekend and also offers potential excitement by the bucket load.  We have a Springbok team that has everything to prove to their critics and a Pumas side that is brimming with confidence and the motivation to give their passionate supporters something to cheer
about.

With a dry and fast ground for running rugby and two teams with strong running backlines this could be a potentially thrilling encounter. South Africa will have to find a way of countering last weekend’s dominance of forward play by the Argentinians as well as being much quicker at the breakdown. These were two areas that Argentina were exemplary in last weekend and even with the inclusion of Juan Smith in the Springbok forward pack this weekend, I still see Argentina overpowering South Africa in this area. In addition I think Argentina still boasts on the basis of form a stronger halfback pairing than South Africa, especially given Nicolas Sanchez’s current form. The one area where South Africa can outpace the Pumas is in the backs. Although I was not overly impressed with newcomer De Allende for South Africa, De Villiers, Habana, Hendricks and Le Roux are electric. Argentina has fast and talented backs but overall they lack the experience and game vision of South Africa’s backs. They will be competitive no doubt about it, but given the right ball South Africa’s backline should have the edge. That however all depends on South Africa’s forwards and halfbacks being able to deliver it and you can be sure that Argentina will be very effective in denying them this.

Therefore I think, although both of this weekend’s games will be hard to call, this one in particular is a conundrum. I am going to stick my neck out and say that Argentina might just take this one. If South African coach Heineke Meyer loses his cool under the significant pressure the Pumas are going to put on his charges, then it is possible that we will start to see panic in the Boks decision making. Once that happens they are ripe for the taking and this Pumas side are beyond eager to prove to the world that they deserve their place in rugby’s top echelons.

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