Rugby Championship 2014
South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – SA 27/NZ 25
As expected this match proved to be the classic end of tournament showdown between the two best sides in the world that everyone predicted. No quarter given and none taken as this game went down to the wire for the full 80 minutes and gave the public a breathtaking spectacle of rugby at the highest level.
South Africa came into this game knowing that they had to build on the momentum they achieved last weekend in Cape Town against the Wallabies. However, the all-conquering All Blacks would be a much harder nut to crack. South Africa played well last weekend, but they now had to dig deep and find another level if they were to stand any chance. Clearly the planning in the week leading up to the match seemed to be that unlike against Australia, South Africa would have to establish an early dominant lead forcing the All Blacks to play catch up rugby and hope that if the All Blacks would have to claw a victory at the last minute doing so in the high altitude conditions of Johannesburg would be a bridge too far. I doubt at sea level the Springboks would have taken this gamble. Look at Ireland’s dominance by three tries in their match last year in Dublin against New Zealand, only to have New Zealand snatch victory at the last minute. Nevertheless the altitude in Johannesburg is always going to be a factor. The Springboks took a calculated risk, and despite a 15 minute lapse of concentration in the second half that almost cost them the game, managed to just hang on and courtesy of Pat Lambie’s remarkable boot snatch the victory that was theirs for the taking.
Firstly I think that I owe two gentlemen in the Springbok camp an apology. Francois Hougaard and Handre Pollard, especially Handre Pollard – Sir you were utterly outstanding! Even Heineke Meyer could be in for an apology as he seems well on the way to coming up with the complete Springbok squad and dare I say it – a game plan that works. Sort out some of those lapses in concentration, physical endurance and conditioning, keep hanging on to the ball and it is all starting to look really good for Mr. Meyer and his charges. The lesson for South Africa from this narrow but courageous win is here is something to build a base from that works but we are still a ways from the finished product and the full equal of the world’s best team – New Zealand. Prepare for November’s Tests with that frame of mind and a European autumn could be a very encouraging period for the Springboks as they ready themselves for the global showdown in England next year at the World Cup.
South Africa came storming out of the blocks from the first minute in this match, and showed clearly their intent. A few initial errors in handling were quickly ironed out and Francois Hougaard went on to score a try that started deep in South Africa’s 22 that showed the world that South Africa know how to run the ball and keep possession and have a backline that deserves respect. Once again it was that man Cornal Hendricks who showed us some blistering pace and dazzling footwork before making a brilliant offload to the equally impressive Jan Serfontein who in turn found Hougaard exactly where he needed him to be to power past a flat footed All Black defense. As I say Hendricks for me has been one of the revelations of the tournament and I am really looking forward to watching him in Europe in November – definitely one of the Autumn’s danger men from the Southern Hemisphere.
The next to show off his armory of exceptional skills was Handre Pollard as he effortlessly appeared at Byran Habana’s side as the winger made a superb break. Pollard then demonstrated that slalom skiing skills now have a place in international rugby as he magically weaved his way around three All Black defenders to cross the white line. By now the sound at Ellis Park could probably be heard on the moon as the Springbok faithful were having the party they had been promised for so long.
However, New Zealand are never left speechless for too long and soon pounced back with Savea and Fekitoa showing a terrific interlinking of the two wings as the latter stormed his way across the Springbok line after a superb chip and gather and resulting offload from Savea. Fekitoa is rapidly proving to be a pocket Jonah Lomu as once off and running he is almost impossible to bring down leaving scores of flailing defenders on the touchlines clutching at thin air.
South Africa were to comprehensively seal the first half in their favor as Handre Pollard continued to play the game of his life so early in his young career as the fly half evaded the clutches of the legendary Richie McCaw after seeing a glimmer of space and securing South Africa’s third try.
The facial expressions on players at half time said it all, the Boks looked as though they were on the verge of something big but Meyer managed to maintain a remarkable sense of composure in the dressing room and as mentioned above for once almost looked calm. I am sure that this had a beneficial effect on his charges as for the next 40 minutes they maintained their composure for the most part and continued to deny New Zealand possession while at the same time being careful not to make careless and reckless decisions. The goal here was to win and not attempt to make history and thrash the All Blacks.
South Africa started the second half with a flourish and quick thinking by Conrad Smith denied Jean de Villiers an almost certain try by mere fingertips. This piece of brinkmanship heroics seemed to galvanize the All Blacks into action and for the next fifteen minutes they sought to expose every weakness in an increasingly tired looking Springbok side. The results then came quickly as Ben Smith split the Springbok defense and the score line gap started to rapidly shrink as Beauden Barrett made sure the GPS in his kicking boot was operating correctly. With less than ten minutes to go, Dan Coles crashed over the Springbok white line and it was 25-24 for the All Blacks. The ground became eerily quiet as Springbok supporters had visions of Ireland’s similar loss to the All Blacks last year flashing before their eyes. Pat Lambie tried an ambitious drop goal but was just wide of the posts.
An exhausting, intense physical encounter finally took its toll on New Zealand in the dying minutes of the game. Liam Messam, whether willfully or accidentally, made a dubious tackle on Schalk Burger that on the video screen appeared to show Messam clearly in the wrong. The crowd went quiet as the young Pat Lambie with the weight of the nation on his shoulders stepped up to take an almost impossible kick from 55 metres to seal the game for the Springboks. The expression on Lambie’s face summed up the Nation’s feeling – JOB DONE! There is no doubt that Lambie will regard that kick as one of the highlights of his career, and that he could perform as well as he did under that kind of almost superhuman pressure is a true testimony to this young player’s talent.
In short an inspirational performance from a highly charged Springbok side, but one that must serve as the motivation to improve. As mentioned above, South Africa looked exhausted at times in the second half, in many ways much more so than the All Blacks who should have suffered more at high altitude. If South Africa want to continuously beat New Zealand then they need to sort out their match fitness especially away from home as they set out on an intensive travel schedule in November. However, what we witnessed this weekend should give Springbok fans around the world great heart with a year to go before the World Cup.
Argentina vs Australia
Final Score – Arg 21/Aus 17
The result we have all been predicting for the Pumas for so long finally materialised in Mendoza this Saturday. Yes there was controversy as a result of the shameful laser incident during Bernard Foley’s kick which would have given Australia a temporary lead in the dying minutes of the game, but Argentina nevertheless were ultimately the better side, incidents aside and can feel enormously proud of this victory so long in the making. As for the laser incident itself, I have two hopes that the Argentinian players and management will release a concerted condemnation of this incident and make clear that such behaviour only tarnishes the reputation of the national side. Secondly the IRB can easily put a stop to such behaviour by automatically awarding three points to any team whose kicker is the victim of a laser incident. In so many games which hinge on the outcome of a last minute penalty kick, I would argue that throwing your team’s chances of victory away by boorish spectator behaviour will come to an end quickly if such fans know that it was their actions which lost the game for their team – on emerging from the stadium such fans would need to make sure they had a fast getaway car waiting with engine running in the parking lot in order to avoid being publicly lynched!
Nevertheless this unfortunate incident aside, it doesn’t detract from the fact that Argentina played a tight and well-disciplined game that saw them completely dominate Australia especially at scrum time. The absence of team talisman Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe seemed to have little effect on the team and if anything they played with a fervour that looked intent on honoring Lobbe’s decision to forego the match to return to France to be reunited with his family for the birth of his son. Argentina were immense across the park and had done their homework well. Every player in the squad,bench included,stepped up and played to their full potential and the reward was a well-earned win. The roar from the crowd each time the mighty Argentinian scrum won the ball off Australia was infectious and was obviously adding that extra bit of impetus to an already fired up Pumas squad.
There is no denying that the first fifteen minutes of the first half did not go well for the Pumas. As we watched them give away two relatively soft tries, I am sure that most people saw a repeat of Australia’s thrashing of the Pumas in Roasario last year looming once again. However, the Pumas had a quick team huddle under the goal posts, a quick chat and from there for the rest of the match simply did not look back.
The next hour saw Argentina dominate possession and shut down the impressive Tevita Kuridrani as he made valiant efforts at probing a solid Argentine defence. Furthermore, the Pumas deftly recognised that as brilliant as he is with ball in hand, Israel Folau is weak in defence and effectively pressured him into making consistently poor decisions, which ensured that Australia were denied any counterattack ability especially in the latter half of the game. As Argentina gained in confidence Australia looked increasingly bereft of ideas and as result more desperate. This desperation translated itself into a complete breakdown of Australian discipline, which Argentina took full advantage of through the scrum and the boot of Nicolas Sanchez. Referee Nigel Owens is for the most part one of the best referees on the International circuit and excels at explaining to players the nature of their offences. Australia started to wear increasingly on his patience and you could see that towards the end of the game even skipper Michael Hooper gave up on arguing with Owens over the constant blowing of the whistle against Australia as he realized Australia were throwing this game through careless mistakes and lack of focus.
Australia tried to spark on a few occasions and as he did in Cape Town, the impressive Tevita Kuridrani looked dangerous throughout the match, but as the game wore on Argentina became increasingly effective at dealing with this Wallaby threat. Australia were wrongfully denied three points through the laser incident during Bernard Foley’s penalty kick towards the end of the game. The debate around this will rage long after this game’s final whistle. If Foley had successfully got the penalty would the resulting lead have galvanized a weary and ill-disciplined Australian side to up their game and keep the ferocious Pumas final onslaught at bay? More importantly would the Wallabies then have got that vital third try which is the only way they realistically could have won the game? To be honest I doubt it. Nevertheless, whatever the result of that kick, Argentina turned up the heat for the last ten minutes to the point that Australia had no answers. In the end the Pumas emerged victorious through heroic hard work whatever the result of the laser incident. However you want to interpret it, Argentina won by either one point or four – but the fact of the matter is that they won and won deservedly.
The world now awaits a fired up and hugely improved Pumas side as they travel to Europe in November. With many of their key players now earning their stripes on a weekly basis on the ferocious playing fields of France and England, Argentina’s opponents in November must surely be feeling nervous especially as the most powerful and effective scrum in world rugby comes knocking at their doors this autumn. Prediction – we can’t wait!!!!