This weekend’s penultimate round of the Rugby Championship provided us with plenty of excitement and both Australia and Argentina lived up to the promise surrounding their build up to the World Cup. Meanwhile South Africa got an extremely rude wake up call in Durban and New Zealand are forced to regroup for their return encounter with the Wallabies this coming weekend in Auckland. With each outing this year, Australia have been getting better and better under coach Michael Cheika and Saturday’s performance against an All Black side which albeit slightly more experimental in nature than the Wallabies, still seems to be lacking some of the lustre we have come to expect from the Men in Black over the last two years. Despite some appalling refereeing from Frenchman Romain Poite, the Pumas put in a completely clinical performance in Durban on Saturday which put the Springboks on the back foot all night and Argentina emerged deserved winners. It was a heady weekend of action and one which clearly showed that this year’s World Cup could well be the most openly contested in the tournament’s history.
Australia vs New Zealand
Final Score – Australia 27/New Zealand 19
As I mentioned in last week’s preview to this match, I felt that although both sides had everything to prove, if anything it was Australia who would be feeling the pressure more than New Zealand in this match. New Zealand have had a consistent track record of win after win in the last two years and All Black Coach Steve Hansen has been using this year’s Rugby Championship very much as an experimental vehicle to road test his possible options for the World Cup. Australia meanwhile were desperate to build a track record after a poor run of form in the last two years, and it was critical for their confidence to prove that the two wins over South Africa and Argentina in this year’s Rugby Championship were more than just flashes in the pan. It was important that new Coach Michael Cheika could lay the claim to rebuilding Australia as befits their status as two times World Champions. On the basis of Saturday night’s performance in Sydney you could agree that it was mission accomplished. New Zealand will quickly regroup for the return encounter this Saturday in Auckland and it is unlikely that Australia will be afforded many of the opportunities they were able to create in Sydney – so in short they are looking good but must be very aware that it only gets harder now with every game as they start their journey to the World Cup and complacency is just not an option.
Australia needed to win this game to say the least and coach Michael Cheika was keen to show the world that the Wallabies are coming together at just the right time. Even though it was an abbreviated Rugby Championship this year due to the World Cup next month, a clean sweep of it by Australia would certainly set the Wallabies on a sound footing as they leave Australian shores this weekend to start their journey to the World Cup. Australia looked full of intent from the outset, and it was clear that they had done their homework. One of their traditional weaknesses the scrum looked exceptionally strong against New Zealand right from the get go. Throw in a back row of David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy and you knew Australia was not going to get pushed around on the day. All three of these players had an outstanding game and Scott Fardy in particular must surely be considered an integral part of the Wallaby strategy for the World Cup – his work rate as always was fantastic. Dean Mumm at lock also showed that his form against Argentina a fortnight ago was no flash in the pan, and he was superb all night especially in the lineouts and as a ball carrier.
The first half was an all-action affair that very rarely took its foot off the gas. Despite its intensity, both defences seemed to be holding strong, with penalties being the only decider, with New Zealand just winning the contest 6-3 at half time, despite All Black flyhalf Daniel Carter having an off night with the boot. Nevertheless Carter would manage to crack the 1500 points in Test Rugby marker on Saturday night in Sydney, but one couldn’t help feeling that the form that had got the bulk of those points somehow just wasn’t quite there as much anymore. When Carter is on form he is still the best in the world but the consistency we have come to expect from him every time he takes to the pitch seems to be slightly lacking at the moment.
The second half if anything was even more frantic than the first if that was possible, but it really showed off the quality of this Wallaby side under Michael Cheika. Aaron Smith, the All Blacks superlative scrum half was feeling the pressure from the Wallabies and it told as two minutes into the second half he was given a yellow card for a careless high tackle on Australian star winger Adam Ashley-Cooper. The Wallabies used the resulting penalty to secure a lineout on the All Black 22 and once David Pocock was at the back of a rolling maul against a 14 man New Zealand defence, the danger signs were all there. It wouldn’t be Pocock to score as he traditionally does from such Wallaby set pieces but instead prop Sekope Kepu would get his first try a few phases later as he burrowed his way through a clear hole in the All Black defence.
Ten minutes later in a reverse twist of fate it would be Australian scrum half Nick Phipps who would find himself taking his All Black’s counterpart Aaron Smith’s place in the sin bin for an offside offence. Australia has been pushing the boundaries of the offside limits all evening and it was almost inevitable that a yellow card was coming their way. All Black fullback Ben Smith burst his way through the Wallaby defences and found winger Nehe Milner-Skudder in acres of space on his right to easily go and score his first try for New Zealand on debut. Carter missed the conversion but New Zealand were back out in front by 14-10.
Australia came back right away at New Zealand and their next try with just fourteen men showed the class that Australia is developing. Matt Toomua came on as replacement flyhalf for Bernard Foley who was having another very average night with the boot for the Wallabies raising questions about his “big match” temperament. Toomua provided a textbook chip through to the right wing for Ashley-Cooper to collect and just wrong foot New Zealand’s Ben Smith to cross the try line for Australia. For me Adam Ashley Cooper is rediscovering the form of his career and is easily one of the best wingers in the international game right now and has been a class act for Australia throughout this year’s Rugby Championship. His impact on the team come the World Cup should be immense.
Less than five minutes later, it was for me one of the revelations of the year, that man Nehe Milner-Skudder who would get the All Blacks out in front again. Milner-Skudder was once more in space and managed in an incredible act of strength given his relatively small stature to roll with three Wallabies attached to him to just get the point of the ball on the try line. Incredible stuff and for me the highlight of the match as per the video below. If Milner-Skudder is not a shoe in now for New Zealand’s All Black squad then I would be left slightly speechless. Carter would miss the conversion again but it was New Zealand just in front for a nail-biting finish 19-17.
Australia made wholesale changes for the last quarter, which saw Nick Phipps replaced at scrum half by Nic White, while Kurtley Beale replaced Matt Giteau at centre who had played a solid game for the Wallabies. You could sense that Nic White had everything to prove as he competes for the number one scrum half berth for the Wallabies and the intensity and dedication to purpose was clear to see on his face from the minute he stepped onto the pitch. I have often felt he spends too much time trying to work the referee and not the game, but in recent months he seems to have gotten this aspect of his game under control and instead focuses on his lighting speed and service at the breakdown coupled with a solid boot. He added a vital penalty which just edged the Australians in front by 20-19.
White’s intensity and vision would turn the match for the Wallabies, as at the 70 minute mark from the base of a ruck he would dummy a pass throwing off the New Zealand defence allowing him to burst through under the posts unopposed. A simple conversion and all Australia had to do was hang on for the last ten minutes which of late they have shown themselves more than capable of doing despite concerted and constant pressure from New Zealand. For the remainder of the game what we saw from Australia was an excellent example of how to hold out and keep your lead against the most dangerous team in the world in the final ten minutes of a match.
There is no question that Australia deserved to win this year’s Rugby Championship on the back of three superb performances. There is little doubt that they are the most improved side in international rugby this year, and the label of dark horse for the World Cup in six weeks time is now a reality. If they manage to beat the All Blacks at home this weekend in Auckland, then you know that this team has found its mojo and England and Wales must be quaking in their boots.
South Africa vs Argentina
Final Score – South Africa 25/Argentina 37
What makes rugby such a great sport is its element to surprise and this past Saturday in Durban was a prime example. Argentina’s superb effort and ultimate victory over the Springboks had always been in the making since the Pumas became part of the Rugby Championship after the 2011 World Cup, but few expected such an emphatic triumph and for it to be on South African soil to boot. This is not to belittle the side the Pumas put together to face the Springboks, as everyone expected them to be totally competitive but hardly anyone envisaged them giving the Springboks the schooling they did. Yes in general the game was poorly refereed by Frenchman Romain Poite and Argentine winger Juan Imhoff’s third try probably should not have been awarded, but even that still doesn’t change the fact that the Pumas utterly outplayed the South Africans who often looked rudderless and bereft of ideas or even a semblance of a game plan. Argentina by contrast were clinical in everything they did for the full eighty minutes – it was a brilliant performance and one which must surely give them enormous confidence going into the return fixture on Argentine soil with South Africa and the World Cup next month.
Although Argentina had assembled a top quality side for this fixture, there were few, myself included, who expected them to pull off a miracle against a powerhouse Springbok side and one which had run the All Blacks close to the wire a fortnight ago. Furthermore, although many felt that it was just a question of time before the Pumas would get their first win over the Springboks, few felt that it could be achieved on South African soil. How wrong we all were! From the moment the Pumas stepped onto the pitch in Durban you sensed there was something special about this team. The expressions and emotions on every one of the Argentine players faces as they lined up in front of the veterans of the first Pumas squad to tour South Africa in 1965 and sang their national anthem said it all. They were here to prove a point – plain and simple. The pride in the jersey was there for all to see. As an aside one has to give credit to the South African audience who were immensely respectful during such an emotional moment for the Argentine players and which reflected the meeting of two great rugby nations.
South Africa themselves were not without their own emotions. After two games where they had been so close to being the victors only to lose it all at the end, this last chapter of the Rugby Championship was a vital chance to show that they were still on track to be world beaters at the World Cup in six weeks time. South Africa had to win and win by a comfortable margin, but at the end of the national anthems you knew they had their work cut out for them.
However, it was Argentina who would make all the opening statements as the game got underway. After only three minutes, Argentine centre Marcelo Bosch was on the end of some brilliantly worked phases that ripped a slightly shambolic South African defence to pieces. After their solid defence a fortnight ago against the All Blacks it was amazing to see the number of missed first tackles made by the Springboks as the Pumas set up Bosch’s try.
One thing was clear from the outset the Pumas highly physical style of rugby and ability to slow the ball down was being played to the fore. Furthermore the Argentinians were using their traditional strength in the scrum to its full advantage. The Springbok scrum was in all sorts of trouble right from the opening whistle and South African prop Vincent Koch was a having a truly torrid introduction to Test rugby. At the end of the first quarter sustained Argentine pressure would tell once more. The Pumas unlike the Springboks were playing with skill and purpose. Another superb passage of play in which the Pumas spread the ball across their lines while always keeping possession put the Springbok defence on the backfoot. Once more after some initial superb work from Pumas flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez the South African defences ended up having more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese, ultimately allowing Pumas winger Juan Imhoff an easy try through the middle and just to the right of the posts. At this stage it was blatantly clear, the Springboks seemed to lack purpose whereas the Argentinians were tackling like men possessed and running every ball that came their way.
Ten minutes later, the Argentines used their powerhouse scrum to full effect deep in the South African half. Quick thinking was provided from their number 8, Leonardo Senatore in a spectacular offload as he broke off from the back of the scrum despite being smothered by two Springbok defenders. From Senatore’s offload, Pumas scrum half Tomas Cubelli got the ball out wide to Juan Imhoff for a very easy try. All of a sudden it was now 21-6 for the Argentinians and the Durban crowd and their team were clearly in a state of shock.
With five minutes before the end of the half the Springboks would show some of the quality they are capable of as from a lineout five metres out from the Pumas try line, Lood de Jager would demonstrate the same kind of skill he showed against the All Blacks to quickly dive through the Pumas defensive wall and just get the ball across the line. South Africa were back in the match trailing 21-13. Argentina would benefit from a penalty from the restart and then a further long-range penalty from Marcelo Bosch and the half would close out 27-13 in favour of the South Americans. You felt that we were set for an epic second half as surely South Africa could respond to their mistakes, fix the seemingly endless errors and come back and claim a victory they so desperately needed, despite the fact that Argentina were doing everything right.
The second half opened in a cloud of controversy and detracted from what otherwise was a fantastic game of rugby. Two minutes in and the South Africans were penalised for an offside offence in their own 22. French referee Romain Poite instructed Springbok Captain Jean de Villiers to talk to his players about the issue of repeated offsides. Meanwhile the field was littered with medics, two in particular attending to Pumas captain Agustin Creevy as he lay at Poite’s feet. In a bizarre interpretation of the rules, perhaps his own, Poite called time back on and without a chance for the Springbok defences to regroup as some of them were receiving a talking to from de Villiers, Pumas flyhalf Hernandez took the quick tap and offloaded to Juan Imhoff who was completely unopposed on the wing allowing him to tap the ball down for a ridiculously simple try. One can’t fault the Pumas for taking the initiative off the referee’s whistle and signalling of time back on, but Poite must take responsibility for poor communication with Springbok captain de Villiers and the resulting confusion amongst a distracted South African defence. It was a prime example of the poor refereeing which at times is plaguing today’s game and which rugby’s governing body World Rugby appears to be doing very little to address. These kind of inconsistencies are not fair to players and leave spectators especially those new to the game scratching their head as to what it is going on – not a good advertisement for the global game!
There is no question that this last questionable try was detrimental to an already very demoralised South African side. Even if it had not been awarded South Africa would still have lost the game, but their attempt at a comeback might have been slightly less half-hearted. Still such poor examples of refeering will sadly continue and teams wanting to compete at this level simply have to learn to put them behind them. South Africa and Willie le Roux at the 50 minute mark showed the class we know they are capable of and regained some pride as the fullback was solid under an Argentinian high ball. Some superb interplay then took place between Jean de Villiers and Jesse Kriel on the right wing, who eventually was able to link back with le Roux and the fullback sprinted off as he suddenly found acres of space in front of him in a rare defensive lapse by the Pumas. It was a brilliant try and showed the form that le Roux is capable of, furthermore all of a sudden there was a sense that the Springboks were going to claw their way back into the match as South Africa now trailed 34-20 to Argentina.
However, the errors would continue to come thick and fast for South Africa forced in part by a truly epic Argentinian defence. The Pumas would hold their ground and even get the next score through a successful drop kick from Marcelo Bosch who was having a superb game. With fifteen minutes left to go and the Springboks trailing 37-20, the writing was clearly on the wall – Argentina were on their way to causing the biggest upset of the year so far. The substitutions came thick and fast for South Africa at this point but they smacked more of desperation and respite for a shattered and exhausted Springbok side than an opportunity to turn the game around. At the 75 minute mark, the Springboks were the victim of another bizarre refereeing decision from Romain Poite as Cobus Reinaach the Springbok scrum half was denied a try, as he was deemed to have not taken the ball from where Poite called the mark on a penalty offence from the Pumas. The replay clearly shows that Reinaach is where the penalty infringement took place but is ahead of the referee who has moved a few metres back to call the mark. Once again it is this kind of inconsistency in refereeing that simply HAS to be stamped out by the time the World Cup gets underway in six weeks time!
In the dying minutes of the game, Willie le Roux would make a spectacular offload to Bryan Habana five metres out from the line and a consolation try would be some reward for the concerted pressure that the Springboks seemed able to produce in the last five minutes of the game. The final whistle blew and you couldn’t help but share the elation in the Pumas team as they celebrated an historic victory in Argentina’s proud rugby history.
There had been moments of controversy in the match of that there is no doubt but overall you couldn’t deny that ultimately the Pumas were the better side. They had a clear sense of purpose, were able to dominate the Springboks in the set pieces and the organisation of their defence as always was rock solid – the same simply cannot be said of the Springboks. The Springboks can never be accused of wanting to lose a game, but they simply didn’t have the all out desire and motivation to win that was so evident in the way the Pumas approached the match. Argentina will take enormous confidence from this match as they prepare to play South Africa in Buenos Aires this Saturday. The Springboks will need to regroup, but travelling to Argentina after losing four Tests in a row since the last game of their season last year in Wales and playing a side that has just taught them a very painful lesson will be an exceptionally difficult challenge. There is no question that there is the foundation of a solid Springbok team in the making – but there are increasing doubts about whether or not it can be brought together in time for the World Cup. On the basis of this year’s evidence and this match it is hard to find a positive answer. We saw the Springboks self-destruct in Durban while Argentina rose to lofty new heights. I think it’s safe to say that all the bets are on for Argentina to make it two for two this year against South Africa next Saturday in Buenos Aires!