New Zealand vs South Africa
Final score – NZ 14/SA 10
As predicted, the Springboks dug deep and finally came up with a performance which although not perfect was nevertheless a considerable step up from their previous three outings in the Championship. It would appear that Heineke Meyer may finally have the semblance of a reasonable game plan, and with the Rugby Championship inevitably lost to New Zealand at this stage of the competition, he is probably correct in using the remaining games to really solidify a team featuring many younger and less experienced players against world class opposition. This experience and the November Internationals in Europe will be critical in boosting South Africa’s chances at next year’s World Cup.
The positives were there for all to see. South Africa’s scrum and lineout were vastly improved and the new blood seemed to contribute significantly to this. Handre Pollard at fly half it must be said played a good game in a tense and difficult encounter and if he keeps it up he looks to be a serious contributor to South Africa’s World Cup challenge next year. Jan Serfontein at centre was a far superior player to the nonexistent De Allende as a newcomer and if Meyer has any common sense he will put his efforts into promoting and developing this young player who has serious potential. Cornal Hendricks once again on the wing showed his blistering pace scoring yet another spectacular try. If he doesn’t get recognition as winger of the tournament then there is no justice.
However, despite this improved Springbok performance, South Africa nevertheless ultimately showed signs of creaking under pressure, going from a half time lead to ultimately losing the game in the second half through too many unforced errors. Yes as always is was wet and windy in Wellington but this is still no excuse. South Africa must learn to improve their skills in such conditions otherwise they are not a contender in the world game. Fatigue and a lack of discipline reared its ugly head once more for the Springboks in the second half and in this game it cannot be blamed on poor refereeing, as unlike the previous games in the Championship the standard of refereeing this weekend was top notch in both games. Furthermore, there was far too much kicking away of good possession and the replacement of Ruan Pienaar by Francois Hougaard due to injury, seemed to only heighten this tendency. I have to confess that although I am one of his biggest fans, Willie le Roux was also guilty of kicking more often than running the ball, and indeed has tended to favour this option too much during the course of the Championship. I still hold that he is one of best of the Springboks current pack, but can’t help feel that he needs to sort this aspect of his game out, and hopefully the next two contests will show this has been done.
South Africa did manage to find a second wind in the last ten minutes of the game which saw them steadfastly camped in the New Zealand half of the field. Several opportunities to cross the white line went missing. Handre Pollard did manage to take a great drop goal and put them within four points. In the last five minutes a heroic All Black defence managed to keep out a veritable Springbok onslaught, but once again unforced errors kept the Springboks away from those last desperate five points and thus the win. It was close, it was nail-biting but in the end New Zealand showed once more how they are the masters of leaping from the jaws of defeat at the last minute.
New Zealand played a good game, but once again although heroic in defence in the last ten minutes showed that they are not invincible and can be beaten. South Africa had the All Blacks on the ropes on several occasions. What saved New Zealand was their dogged determination and ability to maintain their composure right to the end. They dominated possession for much of the game and showed South Africa that hanging onto the ball is preferable to kicking it away, please take note Heineke Meyer. Nevertheless, South Africa’s defence in light of their lack of possession was superlative and vastly improved showing that they are still one of the hardest teams in the world to get past physically. When South Africa did have the ball they looked dangerous and it is frustrating for any Springbok supporter that we didn’t get to see more of this. We can only hope that in Cape Town in two weeks, South Africa takes this to heart and shows us a powerful defence and a great running game, which they certainly have the potential to do. It would seem that the experimentation with the side of the last few weeks is now over and now it is time to produce results and build on every game – let’s hope for both the Springboks and world rugby that that is the case and we are in for some great rugby spectacles.
Australia vs Argentina
Final score – Aus 32/Arg 25
Hands up if you are frustrated Pumas supporter. As the world’s great underdog team with a committed fan base across the globe, Argentina excite us but ultimately disappoint us. We all know they have it in them and that this side is approaching the greatness of the Pumas’ 2007 World Cup side – it’s just we get so many tantalising glimpses but so few results.
There is no question that Argentina started this match against the Wallabies poorly, but from the second half till the end found that missing ingredient to suddenly ramp up their game. They should have won this game, but to not at least get the draw is disappointing beyond belief. A lack of patience, composure and discipline in the dying minutes of the game saw them lose an obvious try right beneath the posts which would have been an easy conversion ending the match in a draw. We can forgive them not winning the match but there is no doubt that we all are a bit disgruntled at the loss. If we feel that – then how must the Pumas feel? There is little point in rehashing the point every week that the Pumas lack that finishing touch and the composure and concentration to make them that killer side. The potential is there but not the execution. If unlike last year’s competition they can go into these last two games at home in front of their adoring fans with their heads held high and determined to get their first win in this Championship – they should and I emphasise ‘should’ be able to finally show us what they are capable of. A strong showing against New Zealand should then translate into a win in their last game of the Championship against Australia. I won’t say anything more – they know what they have to do.
As for Australia, despite them getting the win, I am not convinced that this is a great side and furthermore find it hard to believe that the Webb Ellis trophy could end up living in Australia after 2015 for a few years. They have eked out some meagre wins but more due to errors made by the opposition than their own skill or style of play. The forwards are less than impressive and Australia have yet to find a halfback combination that really outshines any of those offered by their respective oppositions. Meanwhile their backs are fast but unimpressive in defence. The only really standout player for me this Championship for Australia has been Michael Hooper at flanker who has impressed with a huge work rate and some blistering runs in all four games. While Israel Folau is impressive when cut loose he appears weak in defence especially with ball in hand and his resulting kicking game shows a serious lack of technical understanding of the game.
There is no question that Ewen McKenzie has made significant improvements since taking over at the end of 2013, but has yet to really produce a side that is the finished product and one that is able to clinically outclass the other big teams in world rugby. Sure they may get the wins but they are unlikely to dominate any team to the point where you could see them getting consistent wins over the big teams. On the basis of their current form I think Australia will struggle in November in Europe, especially against England and Ireland. Like Heineke Meyer Ewen McKenzie has a lot of work to do between now and the World Cup. In that regard for both coaches the last two games of the Rugby Championship will be critical in setting a sound platform for the November tours to Europe and resulting consolidation of their sides for next year’s World Cup.