New Zealand clearly set the benchmark for the rest of the tournament this past weekend and it looks highly unlikely that anyone will catch up with them let alone cause an upset to their potential Grand Slam of the tournament this year, while at the same time the Bledisloe Cup is once more firmly locked away in the All Blacks trophy cabinet for another year. Australia put up a slightly more impressive performance than the embarrassing effort that marked their opening salvos in the tournament, but still look like a side in the depths of a confidence crisis that it is going to take a superhuman effort to dig themselves out of. South Africa seemed to join the Australians in the emergency ward as in Argentina they played another appalling first half of Test rugby and then attempted to live up to their mantra of being the comeback kings only to find it backfire horribly. Argentina continued to impress, albeit against a shaky Springbok side, but got an important win against South Africa that puts them in strong contention for a second place finish.
New Zealand vs Australia
Final Score – New Zealand 29/Australia 9
As New Zealand emerged triumphant in a contest few expected them to lose, the alarm bells were ringing across the Tasman Straits in Australia as although the Wallabies looked slightly better than their inept performance of a week ago, they rarely looked a threat particularly on attack and as a result with tough fixtures against South Africa and Argentina still to come Australia needs answers fast. New Zealand were made to work harder than in the opening fixture but rarely looked troubled and kept Australia pinned in their own half for much of the match. New Zealand were much more clinical in their approach to this match and as a result although lacking some of the adventurism of the previous week were still able to produce a master class display of winning rugby by a comfortable margin.
New Zealand had changed little for this match with the exception of giving centre Anton Lienert-Brown a Test debut and he rose to the challenge exceptionally well. Israel Dagg and Ben Smith swapped places in the back line as Dagg switched to the wing and Smith to fullback, but it diminished none of New Zealand’s attacking prowess with Dagg proving to be unstoppable once more with two tries. Julian Savea finally got a start on the wing as opposed to the bench and seems to have completely regained his form by continuously shredding Wallaby defences and scoring a fine try of his own. Fly half Beauden Barrett and scrum half Aaron Smith once more orchestrated proceedings to perfection for New Zealand and ran rings around their Wallaby counterparts with Barrett constantly finding ways to deny Australia any kind of rhythm in attack and defence. The forwards managed to boss the Wallabies around the park and in the set pieces, especially the lineouts. Hooker Dane Coles, in addition to providing stellar service at the lineouts and in the scrums, was once more seen in his seemingly preferred position as winger as he made a spectacular break down the left wing which almost resulted in a fine try of his own. In short, we were left wondering once more how on earth anybody is going to stop these guys as New Zealand seems to possess the best backs and half backs in the business and a forward pack that can almost play any position on the field.
As a result Australia were once more left clutching at straws for the full eighty minutes and unlike last week this time emerged tryless in a match where once again they had little if any quality attacking ball. The big talking point was the controversial decision to start the mercurial Quade Cooper at fly half for the Wallabies. While we didn’t see him do anything spectacularly awful by the same token we didn’t really see him do anything that advanced the Wallaby cause. Although Australia’s kicking game was slightly more structured than the previous weekend it still left much to be desired. Although master of the high ball, Wallaby fullback Israel Folau, had plenty of succesful air time he rarely had the support necessary to turn it into any kind of effective attack. Meanwhile although their scrums were slightly better the Wallabies rarely provided any real competition for their All Black counterparts and as for the lineouts – well let’s just skip over that part of the Wallabies’ performance as it was another horrendous day at the office. In short, Australia were slightly better than last week, but it’s really not saying much. The wooden spoon is looming large in their sights now unless drastic measures are taken and quite frankly we just don’t see it happening. Although the Springboks are wrestling with demons of their own we still feel they have more to offer in terms of a threat than the Wallabies and as we have seen Argentina seem to have a very clear idea of where they want to go and how to get there – all qualities which are sadly nonexistent at the moment for Australia.
New Zealand march on while Australia somehow has to find something with which to kick-start their Rugby Championship campaign. From what we have seen of the first two weeks, Australia sadly looks a bit of a lost cause this year, while New Zealand look set to be in a league of their own as the other teams scramble to find some way of tripping up the All Black juggernaut!
Argentina vs South Africa
Final Score – Argentina 26/South Africa 24
The second match between these two teams provided just as many nail-biting moments as the first encounter the previous weekend. South Africa once more produced one of the worst first half displays of rugby that we have seen in a long time, only to rally once more in the second half but as we predicted the Springbok ability to produce miraculous comebacks is just not sustainable. Argentina once more produced the more consistent display of rugby and put on another dazzling show of handling skills at times, with their opening try from fullback Joaquin Tuculet being a case in point. Perhaps Argentina’s only concern must surely be that they let such an inept Springbok side back into the match in the second half, and as a result had to work far too hard to hang onto a victory they had seemingly secured by the first forty minutes.
To say that the Springboks looked clueless in the first half would be paying them a compliment. We were surprised at how so many players, even the exceptional scrum half Faf de Klerk, seemed out of sorts and confused over what kind of game they were playing. Their defence was awful, and as usual when in doubt South Africa resorted to kicking away perfectly good possession through a series of meaningless box kicks. When you have a back line with the pace and strength of Argentina’s this is akin to rugby suicide just as it would be if they had been playing the All Blacks. In short, the Springboks were awful in the first half and Argentina were the better side by a country mile and thoroughly deserved their 13-3 lead on the back of Tuculet’s outstanding try which had been a total team effort.
In desperation, Springbok Coach Coetzee depleted his reserves early into the second half in an attempt to inject some pace and structure to the game, with lock Pieter-Steph du Toit and flanker Jaco Kriel making the most significant contributions to what was essentially a lost cause. Winger Bryan Habana seemed one of the few players who had a vague idea of what a try was supposed to look like as he came to his teammates’ aid by scoring a five-pointer reminiscent of his glory days in a Springbok jersey. Pieter-Steph du Toit also brought some much-needed energy to South Africa’s forward efforts and was rewarded by scoring a superb try which highlighted this exceptional player’s abilities in sharp contrast to the nonexistent Lood de Jager who he replaced. However, Argentina’s second try showcased their exceptional range of skills as centre Juan Martin Hernandez put a perfectly weighted high kick into the corner for the towering form of flanker Manuel Leguizamon to snatch from the air over the diminutive form of Bryan Habana – a contest the Springbok winger was never going to win. Springbok discipline had also been an Achilles Heel for them all match particularly in the tackle area – sadly flanker Teboho Mohoje let his team down on numerous occasions as his preferred method of tackling seemed to be clotheslining his opponents around the neck.
It was a scrappy and disturbing performance from the Springboks which will only lead to the most unpleasant of post-mortems by their fans and the press over the coming weeks. South African rugby seems to be heading into the same troubled waters that the Wallabies find themselves in. As a result the first clash between these two beleaguered rivals a week Saturday will have the highest stakes imaginable, with both Coaches’ heads clearly on the chopping blocks. Despite this we still feel that South Africa is perhaps in a slightly better position to rectify the problems that are clearly evident for both sides. South African rugby is still blessed with some exceptional talent who for various reasons we have not seen yet this tournament and as result of the current crisis must surely be given an opportunity to prove their worth over the coming weeks.
For Argentina, they must feel pleased with two good performances and some of the exceptional young talent they have at their disposal. They will need to temper their success last weekend with the fact they allowed an exceptionally inept and at times lifeless Springbok side back into the match and as a result almost paid a heavy price. If they are genuinely going to challenge for second place this year then they will really need to tighten up this aspect of their game as the All Blacks will leave them in their dust and a wounded Wallaby side will seize any chance they are given. Still we have to confess that we like most people love watching the Pumas play. They have an exceptionally exciting brand of rugby which at times displays some quite extraordinary skills which we haven’t seen since the bygone era of “French flair”. Perhaps “Pumas panache” is set to be the heir apparent to “French flair”? We wish them well on a very challenging tour of Australia and New Zealand and like most people will be glued to our television screens to see how they match up!
Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action. Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!