A great opening weekend sees the All Blacks show us just what they are capable of against a spirited Argentinian side. There was never really any doubt that New Zealand would ultimately come out on top against a slightly under strength Pumas team. However, the Pumas made New Zealand work hard for the full eighty minutes and at times their defence was quite extraordinary. Pumas Captain Agustin Creevy once again showed what a source of inspiration he is to his team as he scored not only his first Test try for his country but then went on to score another one in rapid succession. However, New Zealand showed the depth and class it has going into this World Cup with Waisake Naholo on the wing showing us just what he is capable of to then tragically be taken off due to injury and likely now miss the global showdown in September/October. Nevertheless, key All Black players such as Kieran Read and Israel Dagg made a promising return to form and in the end New Zealand comfortably pulled away from the Pumas despite a close and well fought first half. Once they find their rhythm as they did in the second half, these All Blacks are looking pretty hard to beat! Meanwhile, South Africa as predicted dominated the opening rounds of their encounter with Australia in Brisbane, only to lose a match they should have won. Australia made exceptionally good use of their bench and substitutions while the same cannot be said of South Africa. Australia effectively owned the last quarter of the game and bold and courageous decision-making by Captain Stephen Moore in the dying seconds of the game saw the Wallabies come out on top.
New Zealand vs Argentina
Final Score – New Zealand 39/Argentina 18
As most predicted this ended up being a comfortable win in the end for New Zealand. The Pumas put up a brave fight and at times their defence was outstanding, however without their full strength side it was always going to be hard for them to get one over on the All Blacks especially at home. Even Argentina’s world-beating scrum was often pushed around the park by New Zealand. In the end New Zealand emerged comfortable winners while seeing a return to form of Kieran Read at 8 and Israel Dagg at fullback.
Although Argentina were often impressive in defence, they had to be as New Zealand maintained a constant assault on Argentinian lines for the full eighty minutes. New Zealand got the first points on the board through a penalty, and then New Zealand’s workhorse par excellence Richie McCaw got them their first try through some of his characteristically hard work at the breakdown. Argentina were impressive in denying New Zealand much attacking ball in the first quarter but the constant pressure from New Zealand was starting to tell. Argentine fly half Nicolas Sanchez was having a shocker of a game with the boot and this was seriously hampering Argentina’s efforts in both defence and attack. However, Dan Carter for New Zealand was having difficulty finding his mark on penalty kicks and conversions which managed to keep Argentina in touch despite the New Zealand attack growing in confidence.
As good as Argentina often were at the breakdown, the end of the first half saw New Zealand make their statement of intent as to how they were to conduct proceedings in the second half. Centre Ma’a Nonu showed as he did all season for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby, his speed and sheer strength as he worked some space on the outside, fended off two strong tackles from the Pumas and crashed across the Argentine line for the All Blacks second try. Dan Carter got his kicking range back and converted as New Zealand ended the first half with a comfortable 18-6 lead.
The second half opened with New Zealand showing lots of intent, with winger Charles Piutau scoring after some solid sustained pressure from the All Blacks in the Argentine 22. Next up All Black 8 Kieran Read roared back to his devastating form after a remarkably quiet Super Rugby season. He has always been such a powerhouse for New Zealand and if he continues to play as he did against the Pumas last Friday then he will once more be a significant threat come the World Cup! After Argentina lost the ball during a period of scrambled defence, Read was quick to pounce on the loose ball and in he went under the posts offering Dan Carter an easy conversion. New Zealand was in a comfortable lead with 30 minutes left to go at 32-6.
However, never write the Pumas off, and the next ten minutes arguably saw the best passage of play from the Argentinians led by the inspirational figure of their Captain Augustin Creevy as he not only scored his first Test try but also got another one five minutes later for good measure. Taking a leaf out of the Wallabies playbook and securing a good drive from the lineout the Pumas Captain scored two solid tries through rolling mauls. All of sudden as the game entered the last 20 minutes it was 32-18 and although still with a mountain to climb the Pumas seemed to be back in the match.
In the end as we have seen so often in the last two years, the All Blacks simply refocused and masterfully closed out the game and even allowed All Black debutant scrum half Codie Taylor to cap off his first outing in the black jersey with a try. New Zealand essentially took up permanent residence in the Argentinian 22 and applied constant pressure to a tiring Puma defence. After a series of exhausting scrums Taylor was able to burrow his way through across the Pumas line, Carter once again converted and that was it – 39-18.
In the end Argentina were dominated by New Zealand, but the two tries from Creevy and their resolute defence at times are all things the South Americans can take heart from as this relatively new looking Pumas side returns to full strength in Argentina for the match against Australia this weekend. New Zealand on the other hand showed that they are building nicely for the World Cup and the hiccoughs we saw against Samoa earlier this month were simply nothing more than that. This weekend’s match up in the cauldron of Ellis Park in Johannesburg against a wounded Springbok outfit with everything to prove to their fanatical fans will be an infinitely harder test. Nevertheless, even allowing for injuries, there is so much talent and depth in the New Zealand squad at the moment that they are still the standard bearers for the world game going into this year’s global showdown and are going to be extremely difficult to beat.
Australia vs South Africa
Final Score – Australia 24/South Africa 20
Just like last year’s fixture this game was decided in the last ten minutes and for some on a controversial decision. However, for me I can’t help feeling that the TMO did make the right call on Tevita Kuridrani’s last gasp try. It was a tense and exciting contest, but ultimately as I predicted the Australians really put the pressure on in the last twenty minutes and through effective use of their bench started to get the edge on their South African counterparts. South Africa started the game well, but as the game wore on all the hallmark weaknesses of the current Springbok strategy came to the fore – a gradual breakdown in discipline and a pointless kicking game compounded by some bizarre substitution decisions from coach Heyneke Meyer. Just like last year the Springboks boarded the plane back to South Africa wondering how they managed to lose a game they should have won.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard got the game off to a shaky start for South Africa, but was saved by some superb work from Hooker Bismarck du Plessis in the loose. Du Plessis was immense all night and his work at the breakdown in constantly getting South Africa turnover ball was outstanding, making coach Heyneke Meyer’s decision to take him off the field at the 50 minute mark all the more bizarre, especially as at that point Australia were beginning to build some momentum and confidence. In general, Pollard had a woeful game with the boot, but his saving grace was his performance with ball in hand and his willingness to never shirk from taking the ball into contact. Even Bismarck du Plessis’ much maligned brother of late, Jannie, found salvation in his performance in this match. Apart from the odd error, the centerfield pairing of Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende worked extremely well together and surely must be giving Springbok supporters grounds for optimism heading into the World Cup given the uncertainty surrounding Jean de Villiers, with Kriel scoring a try on his debut. De Allende’s bullish strength at centre was a good counterfoil to the same qualities shown by Kuridrani for the Wallabies. Despite a truly pointless kicking game for the most part from South African fullback Willie le Roux he did show some serious skill when he chose to run the ball and set up opportunities for his teammates, while in defence he made several last gasp try saving tackles.
Australia started slowly, but as I predicted they made superb use of the bench unlike South Africa, and in the last quarter really turned all the pressure on South Africa. Israel Folau was superb under the continuous high ball that South Africa kept providing him with, but South Africa were so keen to kick the ball to him it was inevitable that the Australian fullback was going to get plenty of limelight. In South Africa’s defence however, once Folau did have the ball he was for the most part very quickly contained by at least two Springboks and very rarely got much of a chance to run beyond the halfway line. Although dominated early on the Australian forwards were eventually able to hold up to their South African counterparts and once Pocock came on the field he and Hooper were devastating in the loose with the latter scoring a critical try with six minutes to go. As always for me, Scott Fardy had a solid game and he continues to impress me as one of the Wallabies most reliable components of their forward play. The Quade Cooper/Will Genia halfback partnership was singularly unimpressive as far as I was concerned and I cannot really see with the halfback pairings Australia has at its disposal how these two add any value for the Wallabies especially in such tight games as these. The difference that Nick Phipps made the minute he came on for Genia was instant and there for all to see. Phipps’ ferocious intensity and tenacity at the breakdown coupled with his quick and accurate delivery to the rest of his pack, make him a no brainer starting choice and I was pleased to see this has been reflected in Wallaby coach Cheika’s starting lineup for the match against Argentina this weekend. Lastly it was good to see centre Tevita Kuridrani return to his barnstorming best after a quiet Super Rugby season and Adam Ashley-Cooper on the wing continued to show that he is probably having one of the best ever years of his illustrious playing career.
The game was a tense and close affair for the first half hour, with Handre Pollard having a very hit and miss kicking game, but the South Africans nevertheless were getting the better of the pressure game leading 6-0. The last ten minutes however were a mirror of the rest of the game. Adam Ashley-Cooper for Australia was the beneficiary of some solid work from centre Matt Giteau, and Quade Cooper in a rare moment of brilliance was able to feed Ashley-Cooper a superb inside pass to put the Australian centre in space and across the South African white line. The Springboks were to recover their composure quickly though, and Willie le Roux showed just how dangerous he is when he hangs onto the ball as he forced three Australian defenders to focus on him as he made a superb offload to a charging Eben Etzebeth on the outside metres from the try line. Etzebeth’s giant form once it has built up a significant head of steam is almost impossible to stop and the big forward crashed over in the corner for his first Test try.
South Africa then proceeded to start the second half full of the same intent with which they had ended the first. After an excellent offload from Springbok winger Bryan Habana, Jesse Kriel at centre and on his Test debut, weaved his way through three Australian defenders to score a try that he will cherish for many years to come and one which will surely give him enormous confidence going into the rest of the tournament and the World Cup. From then on however it was all going to head south for the Springboks. At the 50 minute mark despite the dominance South Africa had up front over the Australians both in the loose and at scrum time, primarily through the work of hooker Bismarck du Plessis, coach Heyneke Meyer for some bizarre reason decided to pull du Plessis from the field and replace him with Adriaan Strauss who simply couldn’t keep the momentum that du Plessis had gained for the Springboks. From there the match started to unravel for the Springboks, their confidence seemed to evaporate, the error count rose and their discipline started to break down.
Australia however, for the last thirty minutes were the exact opposite. The arrival of Nick Phipps at scrum half was injecting some much-needed intensity into the Australian game and they were gradually starting to swing the pressure game in their favour. Then just like last year in Perth the Wallabies produced a clinical performance for the last ten minutes which completely stole the game from a dumbfounded Springbok side. At the 73 minute mark, it was that man Michael Hooper at number 7 who benefitted from the in your face work of Nick Phipps at the breakdown inches from the South African white line and the flanker crashed across to put the Wallabies right back in the hunt. Then at the death Wallaby captain Stephen Moore made the brave decision to go for the win instead of the draw and the ball was kicked into touch for a Wallaby lineout after the Springboks gave away another penalty. It was a courageous decision and a refreshing one, if it had gone wrong Moore would have been lynched in the Australian press the next day, but his faith and confidence in his teammates to get the job done was exemplary. He knew Australia needed to win this opening Test of the year with a World Cup only weeks away and a draw would simply not be good enough – he obviously had recognised that the self-belief shown by the Highlanders in this year’s Super Rugby championship is still a highly valuable commodity in the international game. It paid off and Australia were able to keep the pressure on from the lineout, with centre Tevita Kuridrani showing just how strong he is by battering his way through the South African defence to just, and it really was a question of just, get the tip of the ball on the white line.
The look on the Springboks faces at the final whistle said it all and was a mirror image of this same fixture last year in Perth – “how did we lose a game that we essentially had sown up”? Australia were the deserved winners in the end, as they built their game slowly but effectively over the eighty minutes, whereas South Africa due to poor coaching decisions and a breakdown in execution watched their game deteriorate as the game progressed. Facing a test of epic proportions against an All Black side that is at the top of its game this Saturday in Johannesburg, the Springboks have it all to prove in front of an expectant and critical home crowd – talk about pressure! Meanwhile Australia face a challenging trip to Argentina where they hope to redress the misfortunes of their last trip to South America – on the basis of this performance they certainly will have a lot to work with to pull it off and must surely fancy their chances!
Fixtures this weekend
South Africa vs New Zealand
Saturday, July 25th
Despite all the talk of experimental sides and building for the World Cup this game quite simply is going to be MASSIVE! This is a game the Springboks just have to win. Experimentation aside the South African public will simply not accept a loss against their greatest rivals in the rugby cathedral of Ellis Park. Meanwhile, New Zealand may be experimenting but either way you look at it, this is an exceptionally strong All Black side. There has been much talk this week in the press of the decision by All Black coach Steve Hansen choosing to start Lima Sopoaga in his Test debut at fly half against such a venerable opponent. But take a moment to reflect here, who is Sopoaga playing alongside? The world’s best scrum half, New Zealand’s Aaron Smith, will be alongside Sopoaga every step of the way just as he was throughout the Highlanders’ highly successful Super Rugby campaign. Throw in that incredible element of self-belief that these two used to back themselves and their teammates in the Highlanders’ campaign and I can’t help feeling that Steve Hansen is onto something here in this selection.
South Africa despite the many criticisms levelled at them last weekend in their performance against Australia which resulted in a loss, I still feel they played a solid first fifty minutes of rugby and one which clearly gave them ascendancy over the Wallabies. They threw the game particularly in the last 20 minutes and I feel that a large part of the blame for that lies with the coaching staff and not necessarily the players. Poor substitution choices and an insistence on wayward and pointless kicking were the Springboks Achilles heel in the last twenty minutes of the game. Add to that a breakdown in discipline as their frustration grew and the rest was history. So for this week what can we expect? Lots of question marks around selections leaving many Springbok supporters feeling both excited and nervous at the same time. In the forwards the big question mark is the selection of Heinrich Brüssow at number 6. When Brüssow burst onto the Springbok stage several years ago, I must confess to being one of his biggest fans and was at a loss to explain his disappearance in the last four years. But here is the question. We know what he can do but when have we last seen what he can do – and thus can a player left out in the cold for so long really make a comeback on such a massive stage? I am going to stick my hand up and say yes which I must confess is a rare call on my part as I very rarely rate players on reputation and usually base my calls on current form only. So I am willing to break with my better judgement and say that I am very excited to see Brüssow back in a Springbok jersey and will be cheering him on to make a huge and telling impact for South Africa on Saturday – while at the same time empathizing with the enormous pressure he must feel under to perform.
Meanwhile, Lood de Jager gets a starting berth in place of the injured Victor Matfield in the second row and I can’t help feeling this is a good decision. De Jager for the most part impressed me last weekend against Australia and South Africa does need some youth in this position to develop for the future. The rest of the forward pack is as solid as they come and I can only hope that Bismarck du Plessis shows once more the truly outstanding form he showed last weekend and that coach Heineke Meyer leaves him on the field to provide inspiration to his teammates in such a crucial game. Schalk Burger’s maturity these days will serve him well in the Captain’s role and along with Du Plessis on the field these two should provide the motivation and inspiration that will be so important for the team on Saturday. Handre Pollard and Ruan Pienaar will have to up their performances from last weekend, and Pollard will have to make sure his willingness to take the ball into contact is backed up by a structured and effective kicking game. If anything, given New Zealand’s back line, kicking should be kept to a minimum on Saturday! South Africa’s back line looks solid and once again I am really looking forward to seeing the centerfield pairing of De Allende and Kriel in action again as well as hopefully Le Roux regaining some much-needed form at fullback.
For New Zealand, as mentioned above, contrary to the debate around the selection of Sopoaga, I can’t really see any weaknesses in coach Steve Hansen’s selections. This a forward pack who can push anyone around the park in no uncertain terms and I fully expect them to match anything the Springboks can throw at them this weekend. The battle between the two number eights, Burger for South Africa and Read for New Zealand is a really exciting aspect of the game to look forward to. Raw talent and youth in South Africa’s centerfield pairing meets probably one of the most experienced and talented duos in the international game in the form of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu. We all saw the magic these two were able to create in this year’s Super Rugby tournament and expect more of the same on Saturday. Israel Dagg seems to be finding his form again and he will be evenly matched by South Africa’s Willie le Roux. Lastly on the wings, Piutau showed he was no slacker last weekend and even though he normally plays fullback, Ben Smith is arguably one of the finest backs in the world, blessed with the vision and skill set that would be the envy of any team.
So now for the hard part – who will win this epic? There is no question that home ground advantage is a huge plus for the South Africans and the value of the “sixteenth man” will be much in evidence on Saturday. However, I just can’t help feeling that as much as South Africa are fired up for this one and if anything need to win it far more than the All Blacks, the resulting pressure may just be too much especially for coach Heineke Meyer who as most people know is not someone I have a huge amount of confidence in in such situations. It is going to be ever so close and expect edge of the seat of the stuff, but I can’t help feeling that New Zealand are just that bit more comfortable in their game plan right now as well as being far better at adapting to a changing situation as dictated by the conditions they face on the day. Therefore the All Blacks to just edge it by 2 in a truly nail biting contest. For South Africa’s sake I hope I am wrong as there is no question that a loss will be very damaging to their confidence going into a World Cup, but they know they will have to be at their absolute best and find an extra shot of that self-belief that their New Zealand rivals Ben Smith and Aaron Smith showed so much of in Super Rugby this year!
Argentina vs Australia
Saturday, July 25th
As much as I think that Argentina have improved in the last two years, and laser incidents aside, were deserved winners in this fixture last year, a World Cup year is a very different prospect. Australia will simply not tolerate a repeat performance of last year and have everything to prove. Wallaby coach Michael Cheika has sensibly recognised the negative implications of a potential loss and selected the exceptionally solid and tried and trusted halfback pairing of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley. There will be no gambles on the mercurial and in my opinion vastly overrated Quade Cooper even though he will be warming the bench – I am assuming as a possible impact player at the end. The forwards remain relatively unchanged from last week, with Michael Hooper this time switching with David Pocock to the bench and the latter getting the starting berth at number 7. Meanwhile the back line sees the inclusion of Matt Toomua at centre and Joe Tomane on the wing, both of whom had a stellar season in Super Rugby with the Brumbies and I personally think are the right choice. It is also interesting to see Kurtley Beale on the bench and I fully expect to see him work some magic with Adam Ashley-Cooper once he is brought on. All in all a very solid looking Wallaby outfit with plenty of depth and a good bench, able to match the Pumas legendary physicality with enough pace and speed in the back line to wreak havoc should the Argentinian defences start to crack.
As for Argentina, as much as I admire them as a team and the enormous progress they have made under coach Daniel Hourcade, I can’t help feeling that as close as they will run the Wallabies on Saturday, a repeat of last year’s heroics is not quite on the cards this year. As powerful a forward pack as Argentina are boasting for this fixture I simply think that this aspect of Australia’s game has improved enough to not have them pushed around the park like they were last year by the Pumas. On that note I am looking forward to seeing Javier Ortega Desio in action at number 6 as he was impressive when he came on as a substitution last week. Furthermore, a standout player for me was the new number eight Facundo Isa for Argentina and he will certainly be a player to watch for the future. I will even go so far as to say Facundo is likely to get the better of his more experienced Australian counterpart Ben McCalman. Argentina’s halfback pairing of Sanchez and Landajo while good simply doesn’t have the quality of Phipps/Foley. Sanchez will also have to dramatically improve his kicking performance from that which was on show against New Zealand. The back line sees the return from injury of the very impressive Gonzalo Camacho but without any real form to base it on there are lots of question marks around his selection – he will either amaze or fizzle under pressure. In short, apart from Juan Imhoff this is a very inexperienced, albeit exciting, back line for Argentina and I can’t help feeling that Australia’s experience in this area of the game will easily be the decider. Argentina’s bench does hold some possible game changers in the shape of Leonardo Senatore, Tomás Cubelli and
Lucas González Amorosino and it remains to be seen how and when they will be used.
So in short, an interesting encounter lies ahead. There is no question that Argentina will be backing themselves to repeat their success of last year especially at home. However, despite best intentions there is still a slightly experimental feel to this Pumas side with lots of question marks around it, even though such questions could all have very exciting answers. The Wallabies on the other hand, are riding high on self-belief and confidence and are eager to prove that under coach Michael Cheika they are finally onto a winning formula. On paper they simply look the more balanced and structured side and as a result despite home advantage for the Pumas I am having to give this to Australia by 5. By the same token I am hoping for an epic contest from the Pumas that will put them in a good position for their two fixtures with South Africa, as well as the development of a solid platform to take to the World Cup for this team that is continually showing more and more promise every year. As I have said repeatedly in these pages, lest we forget what the men from Argentina can do when it really matters, have a look at this. Ancient history it may be now but still shows that sometimes the desire to win outweighs everything!