The Rugby Championship got off to a thundering start this year after its abbreviated format from last year. New Zealand destroyed last year’s champions Australia and the Wallabies were handed an embarrassing lesson in basic rugby skills as they were made to look utterly clueless for most of a painful 80 minutes. Meanwhile in South Africa the Springboks struggled against an Argentinian side that looks set to return to the spectacular form they showed last year. However, the Springboks made a remarkable comeback in the final ten minutes setting up an epic return fixture in Argentina next weekend. The action was fast and furious in both matches and considering this was only the opening shots in this competition it looks like we are set for an epic couple of weeks of outstanding Test rugby!
Australia vs New Zealand
Final Score – Australia 8 – New Zealand 42
While there were very few who doubted an All Black victory, we imagine that many people, ourselves included weren’t quite predicting the wholesale slaughter that took place in Sydney last Saturday. The All Blacks put on a mesmerizing display in the first half that totally eclipsed their Australian rivals and made the Wallabies look like rank amateurs by comparison. So much work was done by New Zealand in the first forty minutes and at such blinding speed that there is no doubt that they took their foot off the gas slightly in the second half allowing Australia to get a much-needed consolation try. However, even at a leisurely pace New Zealand would still only allow Australia five points in 40 minutes while scoring a further ten of their own. In short, the Wallabies looked clueless at the hands of a New Zealand side just getting into their rhythm. Some felt that New Zealand were’nt quite playing at their full potential but our answer to that is heaven help the rest of the world once they do. New Zealand are warming up nicely in the opening round, while Australia are thrashing around on the ER’s operating table in a critical condition with five matches left to go. Based on Australia’s performance in this match, made worse by the fact it was in front of a home crowd, the prospect of travelling across the Tasman Straits this week to take on the All Black powerhouse in their own backyard must be the stuff of nightmares.
With the likes of winger Adam Ashley-Cooper and centre Matt Giteau returning to the Wallaby fold, you felt that perhaps their woes in the series against England might start to get reversed. Sadly it wasn’t the case and to be honest none of the Wallaby European returnees made much of a difference to what was essentially a lost cause. Scrum half Will Genia and centre Matt Giteau made relatively little impact on the match, the latter sadly due to injury which essentially has ended his international career. What’s more given Australia’s total implosion against the best team in the world right now by a country mile, New Zealand, England’s series victory against Australia in June suddenly gets put into a slightly different perspective especially if Australia emerge as the wooden spoon holders from this year’s Rugby Championship.
Looking at this match the only real positive we could take from Australia’s performance compared to their efforts against England in June, was that the woeful discipline that bedevilled them in the English Tests seems to have been addressed somewhat. However, Australia were still completely bossed around in the scrums and at lineout time, coupled with the fact that their set piece and breakdown play was generally so poor that they were starved of any kind of possession throughout the match. Add to that some dreadful execution, particularly in terms of handling and passing skills, an utterly pointless kicking game and little if any answer to New Zealand’s outstanding rush defences, and Australia sadly looked a side bereft of ideas and some basic skills that are a prerequisite to play at this level.
New Zealand on the other hand particularly in the first 40 minutes came screaming out of the blocks leaving a bewildered Australia clutching at straws. Although New Zealand looked slightly over exuberant at times and as a result some of their efforts although exceptionally ambitious and skilled lacked some of the finesse we have come to expect from All Black sides of recent years, the point was that they were trying and constantly seeking to create opportunities and capitalise on the confusion of their opponents. While some of the finishing wasn’t quite there for New Zealand, they played the first half at such breakneck speed and showcased a truly dazzling set of skills that by the time referee Jaco Peyper called time on the first half, the All Blacks had already got the job done making the second half mere window dressing on an emphatic win.
From New Zealand’s point of view there were a couple of standout performances in a complete team effort. Fly half Beauden Barrett orchestrated New Zealand’s efforts magnificently and has surely made the number 10 shirt his for the rest of the tournament topping it off with a superb individual try. Dane Coles who as always put in a truly epic performance that lacked nothing in terms of physicality despite him nursing a rib cartilage injury, deserves special mention as the hooker seems to be able to walk over broken glass without blinking an eyelid in service to his team, and was rewarded for his heroics by a fine try of his own. Waisake Naholo was as always in fine form on the wing and it is hoped the injury he sustained in scoring his own try will not preclude him from proceedings this coming Saturday. Lastly it was great to see Julian Savea return to his barnstorming best on the wing when he came off the bench and flanker Ardie Savea’s brief contribution towards the end of the match showed just what a truly devastating impact player he is.
New Zealand are unlikely to rest on their laurels for the return fixture this Saturday in Wellington and are likely to simply fine tune the finishing needed and ramp up the intensity yet another notch if that is actually possible. For Australia, divine intervention and a belief in miracles would appear to be the order of the day as they prepare for an even tougher encounter than this past Saturday. Although they are unlikely to be as dire as they were this past weekend, the level of injuries they picked up in Sydney and the massive amount of work required to get them to be even mildly competitive against the All Blacks will be a significant challenge for beleaguered Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika. While you can’t really see them pulling off a win in Wellington, they desperately need to restore some pride and integrity to the Wallaby jersey in order for them to be a worthy challenge for their remaining opponents South Africa and Argentina, who themselves are likely only going to get stronger as the competition builds to its conclusion in early October. There is enough talent in the Wallaby camp that I doubt they will be down and out for long, but whichever way you cut it, it’s going to be a long and painful couple of months for Australia.
South Africa vs Argentina
Final Score – South Africa 30 – Argentina 23
Unlike the one-sided competition between Australia and New Zealand, this match had sparks aplenty with both sides seeking to make a statement. South Africa were keen to prove that the upset Ireland almost gave them in June was a distant memory, while the Pumas sought to return to the form that made them such an entertaining and impressive unit in last year’s World Cup. Argentina’s entry into the Super Rugby competition this year proved to be a let down, especially as the Jaguares franchise was for all intents and purposes a mirror image of the Pumas starting XV. Reunited with Coach Daniel Hourcade in June against Italy and France, the Pumas had moments of brilliance but overall rarely provided much to get excited about. South Africa proved themselves to be the kings of comeback Test Rugby in the June series against Ireland, after an embarrassing opening defeat to a fourteen man Irish squad in the opening Test. After a dire first half in the second Test against Ireland, Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee brought his Super Rugby Lions players off the bench and the Springboks were suddenly reborn and subsequently never looked back for the remainder of the Series.
There was a healthy sprinkling of Lions players in the Springbok starting lineup for this match, most notably centre Lionel Mapoe, scrum half Faf de Klerk, number eight Warren Whiteley, fly half Elton Jantjies and winger Ruan Combrinck and once these players hit their straps they didn’t disappoint. Let’s be honest South Africa only looked good in the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes of this match. The middle sixty minutes were dominated by an Argentinian side that is just warming up. The Pumas two tries were for us arguably two of the best of the weekend’s action. The Springboks will be concerned that their strength seemed to really only come out when their backs were against the wall. A situation they are unlikely to come up against Australia, but if they let New Zealand get ahead like they did with the Pumas, then their chances of salvaging the match are likely to unravel in the most dramatic fashion as the All Blacks simply won’t allow them those kinds of opportunities. Furthermore, the Pumas at home next weekend in front of their fervent supporters are also likely to be less forgiving of the Springboks mistakes than they were in Nelspruit. Lots of work lies ahead for Coach Alastair Coetzee and his squad over the coming week but results are clearly possible with the talent at his disposal. Hopefully for the Springboks the mistakes made last Saturday can be put down to experience and addressed in time for the monumental two clashes with the All Blacks.
For the Pumas, the loss will be a bitter pill to swallow especially as they looked to make history by winning two back to back contests with the Springboks on South African soil. Right up until the 70th minute it looked like that was going to be the case. Although plenty of mistakes were made by both sides it has to be said that overall the Pumas looked much sharper in terms of execution than the Springboks and seemed to have a much more cohesive game plan that made more effective use of their talents and strengths. The Springboks simply made far too many errors and as a result often looked the less composed of the two sides. Some of the Pumas passing and offloading was truly exceptional and the passage of play that ended with centre Matias Orlando’s try was for us one of the most memorable moments of the weekend. Nicolas Sanchez’s pinpoint kick through the gap in South Africa’s scrambled defences to put winger Santiago Cordero into space for the second Pumas try was yet another demonstration of the kind of classy and slick play that this Argentinian side can produce.
Pumas number eight Facundo Isa was a force of nature and wrought havoc amongst Springbok defences for the full eighty minutes and as a result is an exceptionally exciting prospect for the Pumas future development as he is a mere 22 years old. The Pumas forward pack tightened up on a lot of the disciplinary problems we witnessed in the Jaguares Super Rugby campaign, and while there is still work to do here there is no question that there are some real giants of the game here in the shape of locks Tomas Lavannini, Guido Petti, flanker Pablo Matera and the always inspirational hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy. Nicolas Sanchez and Martin Landajo were exceptional as a half back pairing and Landajo’s replacement at scrum half Tomas Cubelli also made a huge impact. Add to this a solid, quick and highly talented back line and Argentina looked very much like the finished product for much of this match. The ability to close out big games like this which has been an Achilles Heel for the Pumas in the past ultimately came back to haunt them, but with five matches still to go it is likely that the Pumas stand a chance of claiming one or two big scalps before the tournament ends in October.
As for the Springboks despite far too many errors initially, once they settled into their rhythm they produced 12 minutes of sublime comeback rugby at the end of the match. For their supporters the hope is surely that the remaining fixtures in the competition will be less about comebacks, as inspirational as they are, and more about the dominance that a group with this much talent should be producing. Man of the Match Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk deserves special mention as apart from the odd error, he produced a stellar display of rugby which Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, his All Black counterparts, will surely have taken notice of. De Klerk is the epitome of the pedigree of Springbok rugby – an utterly fearless competitor who wears his heart on his sleeve. His obvious enthusiasm and love of the game coupled with the fierce pride and devotion to the jersey is a privilege and pleasure to watch. Almost impossible to contain and in the thick of every passage of play he is an enormous asset to this Springbok side. His ability to successfully tackle players twice his size is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends, just watch replays of this match to watch him bringing down Pumas giants like Leguizamon and Lavanini and you’ll see what we mean. His speed, vision and exceptional distribution of ball at pace is outstanding and will keep us glued to our television screens for the duration of the tournament.
Once the Springboks started to settle their strengths rapidly became apparent. Their scrum started to solidify especially once prop Vincent Koch was introduced into the mix. The lock partnership of Lood de Jaeger and Eben Etzebeth, especially Etzebeth, brought a devastating physical presence in both attack and defence, and Pieter-Steph du Toit brought the edge that really cemented the Springbok comeback in this department once he came off the bench. It was the flanker partnership where there were concerns which were really only rectified once Jaco Kriel came off the bench for Francois Louw who in our opinion is well past his sell by date in a Springbok shirt. It is blatantly obvious as it has been all year that Jaco Kriel should be getting a starting berth for every Springbok game at flanker. Despite his critics and the unfortunate “quota” debate surrounding his inclusion we had to admit that Teboho Mohoje had a very respectable game and certainly performed much more effectively than his back row partner Louw. Number eight Warren Whiteley was outstanding and his match winning try was symbolic of the inspiration that he and his Lions teammate scrum half de Klerk provide to this Springbok team – future Captain material if ever there was one and a credit to his country and the jersey.
In the backs Ruan Combrinck provided good value for money on the wing, but despite his excellent try was prone to a few uncharacteristic errors we are not used to seeing from him. We’ll put it down to the conditions and feel fairly confident we are unlikely to see the same mistakes next week in Salta from this exceptional player. Lionel Mapoe had a good outing at centre but often lacked the support he needed and occasionally tried to do too much on his own. We thought his centre partner Damian de Allende had a poor outing and for us the jury is still out on this player – we’d actually prefer to see Jesse Kriel in his place. De Allende is too hot and cold for our liking and missed far too many tackles in this match. We couldn’t help feeling the same about Johan Goosen at fullback, despite his try which for all intents and purposes was the work of that man Faf de Klerk operating at full throttle as he did all match. Goosen made far too many errors for our liking, but there again so does the other Springbok fullback stalwart Willie le Roux. South Africa does seem to be struggling to find the right answers to the fullback question at the moment. On the wing as well we feel that Habana is also not the way forward despite his illustrious history in a Springbok jersey. As a result the Springbok back line looks far less composed and cohesive than their Pumas counterparts and that will surely be a concern for Coach Coetzee going into the return fixture in Argentina this weekend. Last but not least but hopefully only a minor concern, fly half Elton Jantjies had moments of brilliance but just as he was in the Super Rugby final, still seems a way off the remarkable form that brought his Super Rugby franchise the Lions so much success this year.
In conclusion an epic encounter lies ahead next weekend in Argentina between these two exciting teams. Both sides are rebuilding though despite the loss on the basis of this first encounter, Argentina seem to have a better idea of where they want to go. Although still a long way from coming close to challenging the All Blacks these two sides clearly have a shot at second place in this year’s Championship, with South Africa probably being slightly better positioned to go the distance. Either way these two sides are going to provide entertainment by the bucket load over the coming weeks and we for one can’t wait!
To wrap up this week’s instalment we give you this outstanding video summary of this week’s enthralling action provided by the talented folks at Rugby Montages. Enjoy!