It was a vintage weekend of Test Rugby as without a doubt the four best teams in the world right now did battle for a place in the final. South Africa provided us with a bruising encounter against New Zealand that saw both sides throw everything they had in the tank at a shot at glory. Meanwhile Argentina despite getting off to a nervy and poor start, provided plenty of excitement as they fought back to hold their own against a very classy Australian outfit. All four teams can hold their heads high for putting in some outstanding performances, and the fact that there could only be two winners this past weekend doesn’t in the slightest detract from the quality that was on display by all four teams.
South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – South Africa 18 – New Zealand 20
To say that this was high-octane, intensely physical rugby would be an understatement. It was a big, bold and bruising encounter in one of rugby’s oldest and greatest rivalries. While New Zealand were able to weather the storm of the South African onslaught it was the All Blacks’ skill in opening play up and working around the seemingly impenetrable wall that was the Springbok defence that ultimately saw the Men in Black come out on top. In the end, South Africa would get plenty of points on the board but none of them through the vital five points of a try, whereas New Zealand would score two. The score was still incredibly close but it was this clinical prowess in attack that gave New Zealand the edge and got them past a valiant South African challenge. South Africa looked good for the full eighty minutes, but their inability to cross the white line would ultimately see them fall agonizingly short of the big prize – a place in this weekend’s Rugby World Cup Final.
Despite holding the lead for long periods in the game, South Africa just couldn’t crack a resolute New Zealand defence and instead had to work through the boot of flyhalf Handre Pollard whose penalty kicking was exemplary all night. South Africa would get the first points of the match through Pollard as New Zealand committed the first in an alarming series of penalties. The All Black coaching staff will have to review this aspect of New Zealand’s performance in-depth as the penalty count against them was far too high for a side of this calibre on Saturday. Minutes later though New Zealand would strike back through flanker Jerome Kaino who would have a stormer of a match, as he crossed for New Zealand’s first try in the corner. It was telling that this try came through a series of back like offloads from the All Black forwards spreading the ball wide, which highlighted just how much of a complete attacking unit the All Blacks are and their ability to play such a varied game which keeps defences constantly guessing. New Zealand’s phase play, as it has been all tournament, was truly outstanding and was one of the key ingredients in their success on Saturday.
The end of the first half would see yet another costly lapse in discipline from New Zealand resulting in try scorer Jerome Kaino head to the sin bin, while Pollard would make no mistake in slotting the penalty to put South Africa in the lead 12-7 heading into the dressing rooms.
The second half would see New Zealand as they always seem to do, quietly regroup and take charge of the match. Still fourteen men down, Dan Carter would effortlessly slot a drop goal and the points gap was back to a mere two points in South Africa’s favour as Jerome Kaino returned to the field. New Zealand’s scrum was proving itself to be the equal of South Africa and despite the physical advantage the South Africans had for much of the match, New Zealand were able to compete and slowly start to gain the ascendancy as bodies began to tire. Beauden Barrett would come on for winger Nehe Milner-Skudder who once more had lit up the pitch all afternoon, and Barrett’s fresh legs and Ma’a Nonu’s vision would set up the try that would put New Zealand back in front and where they would stay for the rest of the match.
South African hearts were further broken by the fact that in the build up to the try Springbok winger Bryan Habana was seen to knock the ball down out of All Black scrum half Aaron Smith’s hands, resulting in Habana spending ten minutes in the sin bin. As Habana sat on the sidelines with his head in his hands, there was a feeling around the stadium that this could well prove to be the turning point in the game as New Zealand now led 17-12 even though there was still thirty minutes left in the match.
South Africa would fight hard for the remainder of the game even with fourteen men for ten minutes, and while they never caved they also never really looked like scoring a try. Replacement fly half Pat Lambie would slot a penalty with ten minutes to go from yet another lapse in discipline from New Zealand’s Kieran Read who was guilty of repeated offences at the breakdown on Saturday. As the clock wound down you felt that South Africa had it in them, but as always New Zealand proved to be the world’s best at simply closing out the last quarter. South Africa would do their utmost but even with a full slate of replacements from the bench, exhaustion was still starting to take its toll as Springbok centre Damian De Allende lost control of the ball as the rain started to pour down and the physical cost of 75 minutes of rugby at its highest intensity kicked in. South Africa’s set pieces started to crumble especially the lineouts and New Zealand did enough to hang on till the end. As referee Wayne Barnes blew the whistle on full-time, South Africa were left like many to wonder how on earth anyone can get one past the All Blacks in the last twenty minutes.
For the All Blacks it was jubilation as they face a shot at their third World Cup title as well as a first in the tournament’s history of defending the title. As mentioned above Coach Steve Hansen will have to be ruthless with his charges when it comes to tightening up the discipline which enabled South Africa to remain so closely in contention all match. However, fix that issue and the sheer finishing power and skill levels in this current All Black squad which is the perfect balance of youth and experience will be very difficult to beat. Australia has shown much the same kind of resolve in the last few weeks and as a result there is little doubt that next week’s final sees the two very best sides in the competition duke it out for top honors.
Although gutted and clearly unhappy at having to compete for the honor of third place, South Africa can still walk away from this match with their heads held high. Whatever the future may hold for South African rugby between now and the next World Cup, their remarkable comeback from their opening defeat to Japan has once more shown the world what a remarkable beast Springbok rugby is, and at its heart it is still an undeniable force that will continue to shape the world of International Test Rugby for years to come.
Argentina vs Australia
Final Score – Argentina 15 – Australia 29
Despite a nervy start from the Pumas, that led many to believe that a match that had promised so much was ultimately going to end in a whitewash, this game turned into a high-octane classic. Australia showed some incredible finishing prowess while Argentina’s passion and commitment got them squarely back into the match and the end result was never a given until minutes from the end and Adam Ashley-Cooper, who for me has probably been the best finisher of the tournament, would score the try that would see Australia claim their place in the final.
While Australia for me were always the dark horse going into the tournament, Argentina have shown the world just how much class they themselves have especially going into the future, as a raft of young players, most notably flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and winger Santiago Cordero, have really highlighted the remarkable transformation of this team under the tutelage of Coach Daniel Hourcade. The future looks exceptionally bright for Argentina, and while they may have to settle for third or fourth place this time around, I fully expect to see them challenging for the ultimate prize in Japan in 2019.
Australia have impressed when they needed it most and last Sunday at Twickenham was no exception. Clearly rattled by the scare they had from Scotland in the quarter-finals, Australia made few mistakes on Sunday and once more their defence which has been the stuff of legends in this tournament held firm while Number 8 David Pocock continued his incredible form in often singlehandedly destroying any kind of attacking platform opposition teams try to build up. Pocock was outstanding in this match, along with flankers Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper, but it was Pocock’s amazing ability to turn an opposition attack into an advantageous offensive platform for the Wallabies that left many of us speechless for the full eighty minutes. Australia have a great team of that there is no question, but Pocock is without doubt the most important man on the field for the Wallabies.
As the match got underway it was clear that both sides were suffering from a slight case of nerves from the enormity of the occasion, but in Argentina’s case it would prove more costly. A nervous and wildly speculative pass from Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez would see Australia take a 7-0 lead within the first minute through an intercept from Wallaby lock Rob Simmons. Although Sanchez would soon atone for his mistake through a successful penalty conversion minutes later, for the first quarter Argentina were clearly not playing with the assuredness we have seen from them throughout this tournament. An inexplicable tendency to try to play the ball in their own half when under constant pressure from a rampaging Wallaby side, would see Argentina struggle to develop any kind of rhythm or composure. They would pay the price for this again as Adam Ashley-Cooper would score on the ten minute mark to put Australia firmly in charge at 14-3.
After this exceptionally shaky first quarter from the Pumas they, to their credit, got themselves under control and fought back well. Despite the fact they never actually crossed the white line to get a vital try, they threatened on numerous occasions while Nicolas Sanchez’s boot kept them in touch for the majority of the match. Their comeback and ability to stay within one converted try for much of the match was no mean achievement when you consider they lost three key players to injury. Captain Agustin Creevy, winger Juan Imhoff and centre Juan Martin Hernandez had all left the field by the last quarter. Winger Santiago Cordero once again showed the quality he has both in attack and defence. Countless line breaks from the Pumas winger would have the Twickenham crowd on their feet throughout the match, while his ability to tackle men twice his size earned the respect of the crowd and the opposition, his try-saving tackle on the immense form of Wallaby centre Tevita Kuridrani in the second half was a case in point. Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet also had moments of brilliance of his own while the Argentinian forwards often dominated the scrums and gave Australia’s David Pocock and company plenty to contend with at the breakdowns.
As bodies began to inevitably tire as the intensity of the match took its toll in the final quarter, Australia just started to get the ascendancy in this epic contest. Australia through winger Drew Mitchell seized the day at the seventy minute mark. Mitchell scorched his way through flailing Argentine defences on a spectacular run and even though his offload to danger man Ashley-Cooper waiting on the wing was scrappy to say the least, his blitzing run had done so much damage that Argentina had nothing left in the tank to counter it. At 29-15 for Australia with ten minutes left it was an impossible mountain to climb for Argentina, but to their credit they strapped on their boots once more and gave it a solid effort right up until the final whistle and one more devastating turnover at the breakdown from, yes you guessed it, Australia’s David Pocock.
Although Australia emerged the victors they knew that they had had to work incredibly hard for it against a team that just wouldn’t lie down. The respect evident on David Pocock’s face as the final whistle blew towards an exceptional opposition was there for millions of viewers around the world to see. Australia were the deserved winners and can take an enormous amount of confidence from this match as they go up against the All Blacks this Saturday for rugby’s ultimate prize. However, although to some the ignominy of playing the bronze medal match may seem meaningless, I for one salute the Pumas as they have one more opportunity to show to the world that they really have become one of rugby’s superpowers. As a fitting end to this post I end with scenes of Australia congratulating the Pumas which sums up the spirit of a great contest and one of the many fantastic highlights of a memorable World Cup.