South Africa vs Australia
Final Score – SA 28/Aus 10
For me this game was definitely one of the highlights of the Championship this year. The last ten minutes of the game and the Springboks breathtaking performance will go down as a vintage rugby classic. The whole game was good and kept everyone on the edge of their seats but the Springboks in the last ten minutes showed us what can be done once you get the planning and the chemistry right. As a result we witnessed a breathtaking spectacle which surely must have gladdened the hearts of Springbok fans who have, for much of this tournament so far, been left feeling frustrated and confused. If South Africa can build on this effort next weekend against New Zealand and learn how to do it away from home then South Africa’s chances at next year’s World Cup look good – correction VERY good.
However, before we get too carried away let’s also temper our enthusiasm with some hard facts. The Springboks were trailing the visitors at half time and for much of the first half did not look the dominant side. Something happened in the changing room at half time. South Africa came back onto the pitch full of serious intent. With twenty minutes to go, Meyer elected to bring on some old soldiers of the Springbok pack and this seemed to breathe a new sense of life and urgency into their efforts. South Africa played with a great deal of intent in the first half but once again lacked composure and were deficient in execution. Far too many handling errors were made despite an obvious willingness to run the ball and take Australia on up front. However that man Cornal Hendricks who has continued to impress throughout the entire Championship on the wing, linked up brilliantly with Willie le Roux who then was stopped by a brilliant Wallaby tackle. Nevertheless Hendricks speed and sidestepping ability plus his skill in a perfect offload to le Roux were spectacular to watch and South Africa were unlucky not to get the try. Fortune favoured the Springboks though as continued forward pressure eventually saw Marcel Coetzee crash over for the try in a well worked forward effort through the maul. South Africa looked like they were starting to click.
Australia rose to the challenge as the game swung back into their ascendancy and they led going into the second half. There was obviously much talk in the Springbok dressing room at half time about cleaning up the schoolboy errors, holding on to the ball much more and generally shoring up their game plan. I would go so far as to say that Heineke Meyer looked almost calm – a rare sight and he has obviously been studying videos of poker face All Black coach Steve Hansen.
Halfway through the second half, Schalk Burger came on to replace Teboho Mohoje who received a standing ovation from the crowd as he walked off the field after his debut as a Springbok, and which hopefully silenced the offensive press speculation of the week before as to whether he had been selected on the basis of the color of his skin or merit. Mohoje was impressive in his debut and is one to watch for the future. Schalk Burger, who has never been one of my favourite players due to his reckless style of play at times which leads to too many breakdowns in discipline, effectively silenced me as a critic in this game. The man was simply immense and performed a one man demolition of Australia’s defences. Bakkies Botha, another old soldier, seemed to thrive on his old teammate’s enthusiasm and the old guard of Botha, Burger, du Plessis and Matfield left Australia’s defences in tatters. Watching these old warriors’ enjoyment of the task at hand was infectious for players and spectators alike. Some of the younger new blood was thrown into the mix with the young but experienced Pat Lambie coming in at fly half for Handre Pollard who finally showed in this match that Meyer’s faith in him was justified. Cobus Reinach the new scrum half came in for Francois Hougaard who also had a stellar game. The rest was history as we watched entranced as the Springboks scored three unanswered tries and a drop goal all in the last ten minutes of the game. In short – incredible! I cannot remember the last time I have enjoyed ten minutes of rugby so much. If this is the new look Springboks, then the world need take notice for 2015. The final showpiece of the tournament at Ellis Park next weekend in Johannesburg against the old enemy, the All Blacks is shaping up to be a cracker at this rate!
As for Australia, there are some positives to take away from this game heading into next weekend’s decisive encounter with the Pumas in Argentina. Tevita Kuridrani was electric and linked up with Matt Toomua at the centre was devastatingly effective in punching huge holes in the South African defence. Had it not been for some brilliant last ditch South African defence then Kuridrani would have been over the white chalk for Australia at least twice in the first half. However, apart from that Australian management has some serious soul searching to do on the plane to Argentina. In the second half Australia’s forward pack was torn apart by South Africa and as they go up against the best scrum in world rugby right now next weekend, that surely is a concern. Furthermore in the last fifteen minutes of the game, Australia looked exhausted and increasingly bereft of any answers to the relentless South African pressure. In short, they were run ragged and seemed unable to play together effectively as a team. Emergency surgery is needed quickly and of Australia and South Africa I think the Springboks will be more effective in preparing for the two very difficult final tests both sides face next week against the Pumas and All Blacks.
Argentina vs New Zealand
Final Score – NZ 34/Arg 13
Probably the weakest game of the tournament so far for the Pumas and as I said last week, hopefully not a repetition of their fortunes at this stage of the competition last year. That is not to say that they played badly, it was just that the All Blacks were just too good.
If you had read the form books and predictions leading up to this match, then to be honest there is not much else to report. The All Blacks looked to clinch the Championship in this game and thus the silverware, and as a result put up a class performance that got the job done with no margin of error. The Pumas were left having to play a valiant game of catch up rugby as they sought to salvage some pride from the whole affair.
New Zealand were clinical and ruthless and produced a blistering display of rugby that showed just how well they were prepared for this game. They expertly played to the Pumas’ strengths, especially up front and as a result their devastating backline were free to cast their magic, which they did in four skillfully worked tries. High school coaches around the world should tape this game and show it to their charges as an example of how to master every aspect of the modern game. Beauden Barrett at fly half was once again superb and despite the drama in the New Zealand press at Aaron Cruden missing the flight to Argentina due to an excess of drinking the night before, showed the world that a lack of depth at number 10 is simply something New Zealand does not suffer from
The All Black backline of Conrad Smith, Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, Ben Smith and newcomer Malakai Fekitoa were all outstanding on attack and defence and given superb quick ball by the impressive Aaron Smith at scrum half. For me there is no question that Aaron Smith has without doubt been the scrum half of the tournament. Smith’s work rate has been impressive and his coverage of all areas of the park is outstanding coupled with an ability to effectively tackle players more than twice his size. If you look at this New Zealand performance you realize you are watching a team that has welded all the necessary composite skills of the game into one unit – in short the world’s only true complete team at the moment
Argentina,meanwhile, fought valiantly and took some consolation in a brilliantly worked try at the end of the game that had been looming throughout the match. They had threatened throughout the game but as usual just lacked that vital finishing touch. Nevertheless their defence was strong and they certainly looked threatening with ball in hand – at no point in the match did they look like a pushover. They were able to compete against New Zealand for 80 minutes, it’s just they couldn’t ultimately take apart a team that was clinically focused on putting the finishing touches on their claim for this year’s Rugby Championship. If Argentina can build on the positives from this match then I would give them the edge against Australia next weekend in Mendoza.
Fixtures this weekend
South Africa vs New Zealand – Johannesburg
It’s going to be a clash of the titans next Saturday at Ellis Park, as although the Championship is now well and truly decided, a Springbok/All Black encounter in South Africa always has an epic aura around it. Last year’s fixture was one of THE games of the year and next weekend’s meeting looks set to be much of the same. A fast, furious and intensely physical contest is what we can expect to see at Ellis Park as the two best sides in the world re-enact one of international rugby’s greatest rivalries. Both the Springboks and All Blacks hold each other in great esteem and thus a victory is a true vindication of skill on the day – expect no quarters to be given
At this stage it is impossible to predict who will emerge the victor. Technically New Zealand clearly has the edge, but after the Springboks spectacular end of match annihilation of the Wallabies last weekend in Cape Town, the South Africans are catching up fast to their Kiwi counterparts. Throw into the mix a fervent and passionate home crowd in one of international test rugby’s great cathedral grounds and the Springboks will be very hard to beat if they keep up the standard they showed the world in Cape Town. Heineke Meyer finally seems to be consolidating a strong team with a clear sense of what they have to do and how they have to play in order to beat the best in the world. The new talent that South Africa has chosen to invest in is starting to show clear promise and overall the Springboks are hopefully finally starting to move in the right direction.
New Zealand on the other hand will recognize this and will no doubt somehow notch their game up yet another level if that is even possible, considering they are consistently setting the benchmark on how to play the game. They regard any win against the Springboks as critical to maintaining the All Black legend and hold the Springboks in greater regard despite past performances than probably any other team in world rugby. South Africa will bring their A game but expect New Zealand to bring their A+ game. With two such evenly matched and powerful teams, anyone with a heart condition or frail nerves should probably look away next Saturday – it’s going to be a roller coaster ride!
Argentina vs Australia – Mendoza
For those of us who have Argentina as their favourite underdog team, Saturday’s fixture in the heartland of Argentine rugby will be a nerve wracking affair. I would not use Argentina’s performance against the All Blacks as the basis of predicting the result. The Pumas will be up for this and sensing blood after seeing Australia implode against the Springboks in South Africa. Add to that various elements of discord in the Wallaby camp and Australia could be ripe for the taking. The question is at the end of the Championship can Argentina take all the lessons they have learnt this past six weeks and put them all together to produce the curtain call performance of their Championship? Of concern to them will be the absence of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who although not Captain, this duty having been passed to the inspirational Augustin Creevy, is still nevertheless a spiritual talisman for the rest of the team. However, if they can go into this match feeling proud of their consistent improvement over the last six weeks and determined to get that first win, then I think it is there for the taking with the home crowd making more than enough noise to provide that additional motivation. Patience, composure and sticking to the skills and core strengths of the Pumas should see them through against a Wallaby side brimming with talent but lacking cohesion.
That being said, Australia will not come to Mendoza with their tails between their legs. They have everything to prove and furthermore know the grilling they will get on their return home if it is their scalp which is to be the Pumas first in the Rugby Championship. Australia have the talent but as mentioned above lack the cohesion. Furthermore, I cannot see a weary and at times weak Australian forward pack being able to stand up to the Pumas phenomenal scrum and set of forwards. Australia have shown consistent weaknesses in the scrum and Argentina probably have the best scrum in world rugby right now. If Australia cannot match the challenge the Pumas will give them in this area, then I foresee increasing fatigue starting to set in on the side of the Wallabies. This in turn seems to lead to frustration for Australia and a corresponding lack of discipline at the breakdown. If Argentina consistently gain the upper hand in the scrum, then I think the last twenty minutes of the game will see Australia start to fall apart and a certain sense of desperation set in. Nevertheless many pundits predicted a strong Argentinian win for this fixture in last year’s Championship and it ended up being a comprehensive thrashing of the Pumas by the Wallabies. If Australia come prepared and with a healthy dose of respect for their opponents and dismiss last year’s result as a completely different scenario than the one they will face this weekend, their chances to come away with a win are good. On the other hand a misplaced sense of confidence and lack of discipline by Australia will see the Pumas get the result that everyone has been predicting for so long. We wait and see who has done their homework for what looks set to be a fascinating encounter.