New Zealand vs Australia
Final score – NZ 51/Aus 20
By now most of us will have recovered our breath from what was an absolutely stunning All Black performance at the expense of the Wallabies. As I mentioned in last week’s edition, I felt that the All Blacks would be the more effective team in learning the lessons that needed to be learnt from the previous encounter in Sydney. I was not proved wrong. Whatever failings New Zealand may have had in Sydney, they were completely absent from the team’s display in Auckland. Australia on the other hand were poor and if anything regressed from their efforts in Sydney. In short they were annihilated by a dynamic All Black team who demonstrated their mastery of every aspect of the game.
There were some positives for Australia but they were few and far between. Michael Hooper’s individual try was inspirational even though it was more of a consolation than the impetus needed to spark Australia into life. Matt Toomua at 12 was also exciting to watch and could have done so much more had he had the support he needed from the rest of his teammates. Australia’s scrum also held up relatively well, though watching the Pumas’ utter dominance of the Springboks’ forward pack, Coach Ewen McKenzie must be feeling quite terrified at the prospect of his two encounters with the Pumas. It appears that McKenzie has perhaps realized the error of his ways by substituting Bernard Foley in for Kurtley Beale at fly half during the second half – a decision that should never have had to been made in the first place.
So where to begin with New Zealand and the master class display of the tournament so far? New Zealand answered every single question put to them by their critics last weekend and showed the world once again that they are still the benchmark team to beat. Although it was a complete team performance, there were so many players who had individual performances that deserve special mention. For me there were four displays that really stood out. Brodie Retallick at number 4 was the stuff of legends. The gigantic lock was utterly devastating and despite his size showed the pace and speed of a winger at times as he smashed through the Australian defences creating huge gaps and spaces for New Zealand’s backs. Aaron Smith the feisty scrum half was always right behind him making sure that the opportunities Retallick kept creating provided quick ball for New Zealand’s backline, causing Australia to look disorganised and frayed in their defence and constantly having to play catch up. In the lineout Retallick and Whitelock denied their Australian counterparts any decent ball, and these two skyscrapers made the lineout a weak option for Australia. Australia’s shouted lineout commands looked more like calls to avoid throwing the ball to Retallick or Whitelock rather than calls for plays from the coaching playbook.
At fly half, Aaron Cruden was probably the player of the weekend. With the exception of Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez, Cruden showed the other teams what they are lacking in this position. Going into this tournament there was much talk of New Zealand not having the legendary Dan Carter at Number 10 at least for the initial games. Aaron Cruden has proved that he is more than capable of stepping into Carter’s shoes and in many ways with each game is proving himself to be Carter’s equal. Cruden is intelligent enough to know that he perhaps does not have Carter’s kicking game, and also knows his opposition well enough to realize when to use the boot and when not to. Cruden plays his position differently to Dan Carter and relies more on his blistering pace and skill with ball in hand. Cruden consistently saw holes in Australia’s defence and was into them like a shot, which then released the rest of New Zealand’s backline who thrived on running the ball out wide. Indeed New Zealand’s ball handling and passing skills in Auckland this weekend were mesmerising to watch. Cruden’s kicking for goal was faultless and in that area he is comfortably Dan Carter’s equal if not better.
Julian Savea on the wing provided us with thrilling displays of his running skills and made several long deep cuts down the outside into Australian territory, ultimately resulting in one of the best tries of the game. Also impressive in defence, Savea showed his pace and why he is regarded as such a threat by opposition defences.
Lastly, although substituted midway through the second half, for the impressive Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett showed once more what depth New Zealand have especially at Number 10. Barrett, just like Cruden, covered huge areas of the park and was everywhere, and his try saving tackle on Israel Folau was undoubtedly one of the best plays of the match.
In short New Zealand were breathtaking. They are on a roll now and having put their opening jitters well and truly to rest, will only get better with each successive game. As a result I can’t help feeling that the tournament is already decided. New Zealand will take the spoils, and the Rugby Championship in terms of a competition will revert to its old Tri Nations format – the Tri this time being Argentina, Australia and South Africa with New Zealand simply using their games against these three countries as warmup matches for the World Cup next year.
As an aside to this match, French referee Romain Poite’s handling of the game should also be mentioned in honorable dispatches. There had been much controversy surrounding South African referee Jaco Peyper’s officiating of this fixture the week before. Romain Poite however was consistent and solid in his management of the game, allowing for a fast flowing and open game with minimal delays particularly around the scrums. He was fair and showed no favouritism and the yellow card that New Zealand’s Richie McCaw received was totally justifiable with even the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen supporting Poite’s decision in the post-game commentary. Poite was superb in explaining his calls to the players and this was reflected in a notable absence of backchat to the referee which we see sadly all too often after the referee’s whistle has blown.
Argentina vs South Africa
Final score – Arg 31/SA 33
The press correctly predicted an epic struggle and that is precisely what we got in this “scorcher in Salta”. This game was equally as exciting as the one in Auckland and I like many was gutted that Argentina could not ultimately walk away with the spoils. The Pumas’ bugbear of not being able to close out big games like this came back to haunt them in the last 15 minutes of a game that on paper they should have won.
Argentina for the first three quarters of the game completely outclassed the Springboks and provided us with an exciting, disciplined and highly focused demonstration of how to play rugby. The Pumas front three obliterated their South African counterparts at scrum time – South Africa simply had no answers. Nicolas Sanchez at fly half and the two scrum halves, Landajo and Cubelli were far superior to Ruan Pienaar and the woeful Handre Pollard and it was only with the long overdue calling up from the bench of Morne Steyn to the Number 10 position that South Africa finally started to front up to Argentina in this area. At centre Juan Hernandez once more showed his world class pedigree along with the always reliable Marcelo Bosch at the expense of South Africa’s Jean De Villiers and De Allende (De Allende was more like the invisible man for much of the match – Mr. Meyer please take note in future selections). Lastly although Habana and Hendricks did impress for South Africa and it was Hendricks try which ultimately swung the match back in the Springboks favour; Argentina’s back three were a revelation. Pablo Matero was fast and strong on the wing along with Amorosino and Tuculet at fullback was the player of the weekend in this position. South Africa’s fullback, the very impressive Willie le Roux had a good game but without the support of the rest of his pack, which Tuculet had in bucket loads he was just not as electric as his Argentinian counterpart and was left to scramble back in defence more than he obviously would have liked.
Despite Argentina’s stellar display of rugby, they once again couldn’t manage to keep it up for the full 80 minutes despite an impressive late surge in the dying minutes of the game. At the hour mark, the game looked sewn up for Argentina with a spread of more than ten points. However it was here as I have seen so often in the Pumas game, they perhaps become slightly relaxed and a five minute lapse in intensity and concentration allowed Cornal Hendricks to burst through and score out wide. There is no doubt that this was the turning point in the game. Some long overdue replacements off the bench by Meyer added new confidence and motivation to a brow beaten Springbok side. The always reliable Morne Steyn guided his troops back into finding the right spaces in a slightly tired looking Pumas defence. Argentina managed to regain their composure in the last few minutes of the game as they too were galvanised by a massive penalty kick from far out by Marcelo Bosch against the wind. The last two nail biting minutes saw Argentina once again regain momentum through their forwards but a momentary lapse in discipline close to the South African line saw the ball back in South African hands followed by the last blast of referee Steve Walsh’s whistle. The faces of the Pumas players said it all. So agonisingly close yet so painfully far. However, they can take heart in giving us a thrilling spectacle. If they can take the lessons to be learnt from these two games and hopefully not be too disheartened by the schooling they are likely to receive next from the All Blacks, I still believe that if they maintain their current momentum, a win either away or at home against Australia is still not beyond the realms of possibility.
As for South Africa, quite simply for the majority of the game they were poor, not helped by the fact that Argentina really were that good. Coach Heineke Meyer going up against Australia next has some SERIOUS work to do. This is not a world beating Springbok side and they are likely in for a massive thrashing both home and away to the All Blacks. They may fare better against the Wallabies but even there I am not holding my breath. At the moment South Africa lacks serious cohesion in their squad and are tending to look to players who I for one think are past their prime. The DuPlessis, De Villiers, Habanas, Bothas and Matfields are experienced players but far from the peak of their skill and fitness levels. The new crop of players that Meyer seems to be favouring have so far failed to impress me. Pollard at Fly Half simply is not suited to this kind of intensity of rugby. The supposed find of the year De Allende at centre was nowhere to be seen in Argentina; in total I think he carried the ball once. Even the potentially brilliant le Roux at fullback seems to be struggling to find his pace in a disjointed and at times dysfunctional side. The fact that Meyer did not start Morne Steyn at fly half in this game given what was at stake has left many South Africans scratching their heads in bewilderment. Meyer seemed to recognize the error of his ways in the last quarter of the game and his use of the bench reflected this as the substitutions he made changed the game completely. However we cannot help but wonder if these substitution players had started the game how much more different in character the game would have been.
I will grudgingly admit that the Springboks showed character in digging in and coming back from an almost hopeless position in the last quarter of the game. Ultimately they were the victors but far from convincingly. I hold to my opinion that Heineke Meyer is not the man to take them to the World Cup next year, but with a year to go it is too late to change the coach now. The Springboks and South African management as a result will have to work exceptionally hard over the next year to convince the rest of the world that this is a rugby nation that has lifted the Webb Ellis trophy twice and has the potential to do so again. Right now the jury is out.
In conclusion, South Africa bizarrely head into the next round of the competition with two wins to their belt and thus sit at the top of the table in the tournament, while Argentina sits at the bottom of the table despite having outplayed South Africa twice and having been much more impressive than third placed Australia – the vagaries of mathematics I guess. If South Africa has learned anything from the last two weeks, it is that they have found their “problem opponents”. The big three Southern Hemisphere nations each seem to have a team that they struggle with especially at the World Cup – for New Zealand it is France, for the Australians it seems to be Ireland and for South Africa we have seen in the last three years it is unquestionably Argentina, making these fixtures ones to always look forward to.