New Zealand vs Argentina
Final score – NZ 28/Arg 9
We will leave out the fact that the refereeing of this game was poor and discuss that later. It detracted from what was a solid contest and one in which the Pumas made the All Blacks work hard for 80 minutes. The only thing I will say on the refereeing is that the score was actually 28-14 (16 if the Pumas would have converted the try they were denied by the referee). In this day and age with the technology we have at our disposal, to disallow Leonardo Senatore’s try from a perfectly legitimate charge down of an All Black kick was scandalous and no doubt seriously affected the Pumas morale as they could legitimately feel that the referee was biased against them no matter how well they played.
However, as impressive as Argentina was they nevertheless were, as was expected, ultimately taught a lesson by the clinically superior All Blacks. As a spectator this was perhaps most evident when New Zealand scored their second try through Liam Messam. It was Argentina’s put in at the scrum and they, as for most of the game, comfortably won the scrum challenge and then for some reason lost concentration. The ball popped forward off an Argentine foot back into the hands of New Zealand, and into the lightning quick hands of scrum half Aaron Smith who demonstrated his awareness of how to create quick space and the end result was Liam Messam crashing across the white line. For me this sums up Argentina’s quintessential problem, it is a game of 80 minutes gentlemen at this level, and up against a side like New Zealand you can NEVER relax for a second. Nobody expected Argentina to win this game, including Argentina themselves; however you could see that they were shocked that they threw away a very credible performance against the world’s best side on such temporary lapses of concentration.
Nevertheless, despite this it was a good game in tough conditions. Once again though New Zealand demonstrated to the world what extraordinary depth they have in their team. Beauden Barrett was outstanding at 10, even though he struggled to convert New Zealand’s tries. This was resolved as New Zealand pulled another star fly half off the bench in the form of Colin Slade who promptly proceeded to make all his goal kicks. It is official, somewhere deep in the Southern Alps is a secret factory that produces world class number tens – look at the list for the current All Black selectors – Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade. The rest of the world doesn’t stand a chance.
Argentina are still to be credited however with putting in a big performance. They matched New Zealand up front in the scrums and in the lineouts. Their running game although not as visionary as New Zealand’s was still commendable and they never gave up. In weather that was less than ideal, Argentina continued to show that against the world’s best team they have come a VERY long way. Had they not been disallowed a perfectly acceptable try by the bizarre interpretation of the game’s rules by the referee then the actual score line would have been much closer. As New Zealand’s Richie McCaw pointed out after the match, New Zealand were made to work hard by a team that is on the cusp of something great – Australia take note!
Australia vs South Africa
Final score – Aus 24/SA 23
How best to describe this game? In my humble opinion a truly mediocre performance from the 2nd and 3rd best ranked teams in the world, which left many including yours truly wondering how they even hold these rankings in the first place. It was windy and wet in Perth and neither team played with any great degree of understanding of the conditions they were faced with, and quite frankly either team would have been lucky to get a result based on their style of play. There has been much discussion of the appalling refereeing provided by Irish referee George Clancy but as mentioned above this will be discussed later. Nevertheless it is inevitable that refereeing decisions are going to go against you from time to time but this is no excuse to throw games, and that is quite frankly what South Africa did against a poor Australian side that then proceeded to capitalise on a demoralised and weak South African team.
In short we did not witness a rugby spectacle from two of the world’s best sides. Instead we saw a collection of schoolboy rugby errors made all the more comical by weak refereeing. South Africa started strongly, with once again the undisputed star of the Springbok side at the moment, Cornal Hendricks on the wing scoring another superlative try out wide. Coach Heineke Meyer’s decision to start the experienced Morne Steyn at fly half seemed to pay dividends as he effortlessly slotted his kicks on goal and for the most part made sensible place kicking decisions. Australia looked competent but not overly exciting and Israel Folau’s defensive kicking at fullback into a swirling wind left much to be desired.
However at halftime, the scores were relatively even with it being 14-11 in the Springboks’ favour. Watching the dressing rooms at halftime for me was the key as to who was going to win this game. The Wallaby dressing room looked pensive and calm, whereas I was appalled to see South African coach Heineke Meyer gesticulating wildly like some demented Jack in the Box to his charges urging them to lob the ball high for the team to chase. Given the wild, swirling and unpredictable windy conditions in Perth, this was pure madness! Sure enough rather than use their common sense, the Springboks decided to take their coach’s advice and seemed surprised that kick after kick either went out on the full, or didn’t make touch and landed comfortably in the arms of a rushing Wallaby pack, causing endless knock-ons and scenes reminiscent of a volleyball match rather than a rugby game.
Add to this the fact that Morne Steyn’s game deteriorated dramatically in the second half, and the writing was on the wall for the Springboks. Although they initially pulled ahead – the last twenty minutes saw the Springboks make some staggeringly basic errors. The Wallabies didn’t play well they -just simply capitalised on mistake after mistake made by the Springboks, namely through a reliance on a kicking game in conditions that were completely unsuitable for such an approach. There has been regular criticism in the South African press of the Springboks kicking away perfectly good possession and this was to be seen to the full in Perth. Australia did have moments of brilliance, especially once Israel Folau got to link up with his Waratahs’ teammate Kurtley Beale who for this game was sensibly called off the bench to play in the position that best suits him of centre.
There is no question that the sin binning of Bryan Habana for an alleged high tackle by referee George Clancy with just over ten minutes left in the game, had a huge impact. This was made worse by the fact that the assistant referee urged Clancy to not give Habana a yellow card as it was only a penalty and not a card offence. However Clancy decided to ignore the view of his assistant referee who had been right on the spot when the offence occurred. The replay clearly showed there had been no intent in the tackle and it was an unfortunate accident in the run of play. As unfortunate as this was and given the inconsistency in refereeing as the exact same tackle had been made on Jean de Villiers ten minutes earlier by a Wallaby player with no mention, South Africa still had no reason to cite this as the reason they lost the game. They have beaten better sides with close score lines and ten minutes to go with 14 men in the past. Instead, they played poorly made terrible decisions and ultimately paid the price of seeing Australia cross the white line at the last gasp and Bernard Foley get the conversion to ensure that Australia took the spoils.
In the end Australia squeaked home the victors but it wasn’t convincing. South Africa did take some positives from the game, their scrum and lineouts finally seemed to repair themselves though I can’t help feeling that this was only due to the fact that they were up against inferior opposition, but to be honest that’s about it. Even star fullback Willie le Roux couldn’t seem to make head nor tail of the wind and as a result spent much of the game making wild kicks and positioning himself poorly in relation to the ball. As for Australia, they made much of their victory but I for one am not convinced. Both teams head into this weekend with serious concerns. If the Springboks play like they have in these first three outings I fear they will be slaughtered by a rampant All Black side brimming with confidence and talent. Australia have too many question marks to be able to face up to a Pumas side that is on the brink of greatness. Both Ewen McKenzie and Heineke Meyer as coaches of the two most lacklustre sides in the competition have an enormous amount of work to do in the coming week.
Fixtures this weekend
New Zealand vs South Africa – Wellington
Based on South Africa’s performance to date, one can’t help get the feeling that this will be an unpleasant outing for the Springboks. Rain and wind are predicted and if Heineke Meyer fails to learn the error of his game plan from similar conditions last week in Perth and once more insists on kicking away good possession, then the All Blacks will run rings around the Springboks.
However, here is the conundrum – as awful as South Africa are at the moment this is one fixture which they somehow manage to always rise to. The fact that it is one of International Rugby’s great rivalries seems to somehow cause the Springboks to find that something extra in their game. Therefore I doubt it will be the rout that many are predicting.
Nevertheless there are concerns. Given the magnitude of the task facing them and the sheer quality of the opposition, I was once again amazed to see that Meyer has selected Handre Pollard as the starting fly-half. The youngster somehow seems to have a special place in Heineke Meyer’s heart, but as I questioned Meyer’s game plan last week, once again I question his wisdom this week. Morne Steyn is not even on the bench and while I agree he had a shocker of a game last weekend in Perth, he is still a proven quantity. All good players have off days, and I would put last weekend’s performance by Steyn as a case in point. A Springbok/All Black clash is about as intense as International rugby gets and is not the place for an inexperienced fly half such as Pollard to cut his teeth, especially when he has failed to impress in his previous two Test outings in the competition. Furthermore, in place of Morne Steyn, Pat Lambie has his first go on the bench as the replacement fly half. Lambie is a quality fly half but as witnessed in the Super Rugby quarter final in New Zealand this year, still lacks big match temperament and calmness and therefore I would argue is a liability.
New Zealand is having no such problems as they see the return of the spectacular Aaron Cruden at Number 10. They are fielding a completely proven side against South Africa, including the bench, and there is no doubt that on paper and at home they will unequivocally be the favourites for this fixture. Like South Africa they will be fired up and passions will run high for this one, but in addition to the passion unlike South Africa they have the skill level to match up to it.
I hope to be pleasantly surprised, and have the chance to watch a thrilling and tight encounter between the two best sides in the world but I am not betting on it. I sadly fear that the match will very much show us how far ahead New Zealand is and how quickly South Africa is starting to slide down the global rugby order. Let’s hope that South Africa finally use this fixture to show the world that they are still a rugby force to be reckoned with and contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy next year.
Australia vs Argentina – Brisbane
As a closet Pumas supporter I like many people am really looking forward to this game and ultimately think it is the most exciting prospect of the weekend. Australia have so far failed to impress whilst Argentina are building momentum with every match in this tournament. Most people are convinced that their first ever win in this Championship is on the cards this year and Australia are unquestionably the target. The key question is can Argentina remain completely focused for the full 80 minutes and not let up in their concentration and intensity?
If they can do this then I am sure this game is theirs. They have run South Africa close and could have won both games as well as making the world’s best team the All Blacks work extremely hard for 80 minutes. The Pumas are motivated, focused and hungry for a win. Australia know this and will bring their A game to Brisbane on Saturday. The Wallabies will not want to go down in history as the side that gave Argentina their first win in the competition especially as they will then have to face Argentina again at home.
However, with the exception of the backline, Argentina on paper outclasses Australia in all areas of the game. It is how Australia uses its devastating backline and the phenomenal Israel Folau that will determine who walks away with the prize on Saturday in Brisbane. Argentina will dominate them in the scrums and at the breakdown and Nicolas Sanchez at fly half is easily the equal of Bernard Foley and many would argue a much more enterprising player. Argentina’s centres are quality and their wings and fullback are a force to be reckoned with. They may not have quite the pace of Australia’s backline but if they get good quick ball from the forwards and good service from Argentina’s halfbacks then they can contain the danger posed by Israel Folau. The difference for me is that Argentina is a complete team, whereas Australia has brilliant superstars but who lack the ability to play well as a team. This I think will be the key that separates the two on Saturday.
In that regard I think that Argentina may just have the edge if they last the full 80 minutes and as a result I am putting my bet on the Pumas, not by much but a narrow win by one or two points. For this match at least we are fortunate in having one of the better referees available at the moment and this should prove to be a cracker!