Round 3 of the Rugby Championship sees some exquisite displays of skill by New Zealand and Argentina while Australia finally dig themselves out of a hole at South Africa’s expense!

Posted: September 15, 2016 in Rugby Championship 2016
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Despite the result which ended up being well and truly in New Zealand’s favour, we were nevertheless treated to some outstanding rugby last Saturday in Hamilton as the All Blacks were asked lots of difficult questions by Argentina for almost an hour. It was exciting stuff from both teams and at one point the Pumas looked set to make history. Sadly it wasn’t to be as once again the All Blacks rose to the challenge and for the last half hour found another set of gears against an exhausted but brave Pumas side who had given it their all.  Despite the rather one-sided scoreline by the final whistle it had been, especially for the first 50 minutes, a Test match of epic proportions from two quality sides at a blistering pace.  Ultimately as we feared Argentina would be unable to keep the momentum going for the full eighty minutes, but if they play like that against Australia then they surely will give themselves a superb chance of finishing second.  In Brisbane the rugby on display was not quite of the same vintage but it was still a riveting contest that had plenty of thrills and spills.  Two desperate sides, South Africa and Australia, went at each other hammer and tongs but Australia had clearly made more progress with their homework this past week.  South Africa started well but as the match wore on they lost their shape, spirit and composure and as a result their ability over the past few months to come back from behind is finally starting to desert them.  It wasn’t an attractive game, but Australia got the job done with a much-needed win and seem to have addressed many of the aspects of their game that were so woefully lacking in the first two rounds of the Championship.

New Zealand vs Argentina
Final Score – New Zealand 57/Argentina 22
Hamilton

There is no question that the first 50 minutes of this match were some of the best Test Rugby we have seen all year, and the final 30 minutes were no less spectacular even though there was only one team, New Zealand, producing the magic.  Nevertheless the opening three-quarters of this match were quite breathtaking from both sides.  New Zealand would ultimately provide yet another demonstration that highlights the gap between them and the rest of the world, but certainly in the first half they were asked some very difficult questions by a very skilled Pumas side. Argentina showed once more how quickly they are developing an extraordinary brand and style of rugby that is becoming increasingly hard for opposition sides to contain.  Australia despite finally salvaging a win in Brisbane must have watched this match with more than just a mild sense of alarm as they prepare to face the Pumas next weekend.

Argentina came storming out of the blocks and the intensity with which they played clearly caught the All Blacks off guard.  Pumas winger Santiago Cordero split the New Zealand defences in half and got Argentina on the board first and off to 7-0 lead as fly half Nicolas Sanchez got the extra two points, all within the first 3 minutes.  New Zealand would strike back on the ten minute mark, as winger Julian Savea who has seen a complete return to form in this Championship was put into space and Argentina left scrambling to bring the big man down.  In what was a frenetic first twenty minutes from both sides, Argentina came agonizingly close to scoring their second try seven minutes later as Prop Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro found himself in space after the Argentinian pack had shredded the New Zealand defences down the middle of the field.  Unfortunately he spilled the ball and thereafter the All Blacks soon wizened to the Pumas attacking game and closed down the channels that the Argentinians were exploiting so effectively.

New Zealand would start to mount the pressure on Argentina as the first half wound to its conclusion through fine tries from fly half Beauden Barrett and fullback Ben Smith and a penalty kick from winger Israel Dagg.  Although Barrett was not having the most accurate evening with the boot in the first half, he was still continuing to be the playmaker supreme for New Zealand.  However, his Pumas counterpart Nicolas Sanchez was having a solid game of his own and keeping the Pumas well in touch to the point where at the half time whistle the men from Argentina were trailing by less than a converted try and had clearly rattled the All Blacks to the core for the first time this year.

Argentina came out of the blocks in much the same way they did at the beginning of the match and we looked set for another barnstorming forty minutes of Test rugby.  However, sadly at the end of the first ten minutes it was clear that Argentina’s super human efforts were starting to catch up with them while New Zealand looked far more settled and composed as the match clearly started to swing their way.  All Black Coach Steve Hansen made wholesale changes to his lineup and New Zealand soon put a stranglehold on the match as Argentina sadly faded away in the last thirty minutes.

For the last half hour it was all about New Zealand and the Men in Black once more showed their class as they would run in no less than five unanswered tries.  It may have been one-sided but it was spectacular to watch.  One slight concern for New Zealand will have been the loss of flanker Sam Cane to injury but once his replacement Ardie Savea came on there was no looking back.  Although the two have very different styles of play the sheer unpredictability and attacking flair that Ardie Savea brings to New Zealand’s game will leave opposition defences continually on the back foot.  Scrum half Aaron Smith had perhaps not had his best game in an All Black jersey and at times had clearly been rattled by the ferocity and speed of the Argentinian challenge.  His replacement TJ Perenara however rose exceptionally well to the challenge once he came off the bench and was instrumental in providing the platform that allowed New Zealand to pull away from Argentina, showing once more the truly staggering depth of quality that New Zealand have in their player base.

Argentina may have been flat-out of gas as the final whistle blew at 57-22 for the All Blacks but despite the frustration must surely head for Australia with their heads held high.  For a good fifty minutes they turned the World Champions inside out and the All Blacks were for once faced with lots of questions and few answers at times.  Despite that however, Argentina will need to look at how they let New Zealand completely destroy all the hard work they had done in the first hour.  To implode that dramatically in the final twenty minutes even though you are facing the world’s most complete side, is still a cause for concern and will detract from much of the quality of that Pumas performance in the first 50 minutes.  Still we feel sure Argentina will regroup and based on this performance if they can find 80 minutes of the same in Perth this Saturday against Australia, then it could be a long and painful afternoon for the Wallabies.

For New Zealand it once more seems to be business as usual despite the initial scare. Nerves were clearly frayed and vulnerabilities exposed and as a result, as good as New Zealand are, there are a few chinks in their armor.  What this performance did display however is how good New Zealand are at recognising where they are coming up short and how quickly they are able to adapt on the pitch to correct any deficiencies that may be causing them problems.  Most teams are only able to do this by the next match, whereas New Zealand simply need ten minutes in the changing rooms to figure out what the problem is, adapt accordingly and then proceed to run rings around their opponents for the rest of the match.  For us it is this ability, more than just the staggering skill set that the All Blacks possess, that makes them stand head and shoulders above anyone else in Test rugby at the moment and is likely to ensure their continued dominance leading up to the next World Cup in 2019.

Australia vs South Africa
Final Score – Australia 23/South Africa 17
Brisbane

It wasn’t pretty from both sides, but of the two teams, the Wallabies have been more successful in the space of a week in addressing the ills that are plaguing the current state of Test rugby in Australia and South Africa.  Initially, it looked like South Africa were going to be yet another side to show up the frailties of Australian rugby but as the match wore on the Wallabies settled, found their composure and were just that much better at the basics while South Africa slowly started to fall apart after a bright start. How good Australia really are given the weaknesses inherent in the Springboks is hard to judge and the Test against the Pumas next weekend will be a real benchmark by which they can judge their progress. However, Australia’s set piece work at the scrum and lineouts was infinitely better than what we have seen so far from them this year, even though their attacking ability still appears rather incoherent and disorganised at times.  South Africa meanwhile still appear to be without an overall game plan or sense of what kind of rugby they want to play. Furthermore away from home they look more than just a little vulnerable and when under pressure revert to the type of smash and bash rugby that has done very little for them in the last two years tied to a kicking game that denies them possession and seems devoid of any sense of purpose.

South Africa looked the side to make the statement that both sides were desperate to make in this match as the first quarter played out.  Number eight and Springbok Captain in the making, Warren Whiteley, would score a gritty try from a solid team effort in the build up.  South Africa looked the more composed of the two sides and Whiteley’s effort was soon followed up by fullback Johan Goosen. A brilliant intercept by Hooker Adrian Strauss and a chip and chase between centre Jesse Kriel and Goosen, with the latter winning the footrace, would lead to South Africa’s second seven pointer.  We feel we own Johan Goosen an apology after this match as we have been rather disdainful of his efforts in the opening two rounds, but for the first sixty minutes in Brisbane we thought he was one of the more outstanding Springboks on the field.  However, as a result we were disappointed by the end of the match that despite a solid performance for the most part he fell into the Springbok trap of endlessly kicking away possession, usually to his Australian counterpart Israel Folau who will always relish the opportunity of a counter attack.

For Australia although their attacking threat still looked piecemeal for much of the match their defence and set piece work was considerably better than what we have seen from them so far this year.  In general, their scrums looked more solid and there was a dramatic improvement in their lineout work.  Once again Wallaby scrum half Will Genia seemed to be the glue holding some semblance of an attacking strategy together for Australia as he would loop an outstanding pass high over some hapless Springbok defenders to get lock Adam Coleman over in the corner for Australia’s first try.  Once this happened approaching the half hour mark Australian resolve seemed to strengthen while Springbok resilience seemed to start to falter, despite South Africa holding the narrowest of leads by 14-13 at half time.

In the second half the Springbok Achilles Heel of losing composure under pressure and away from home came back to haunt them in no uncertain terms, making the likelihood of them maintaining their status as this year’s comeback kings in Test rugby increasingly unlikely.  Discipline started to crack and lock Eben Etzebeth’s temper once more got the better of him consigning him to the sin bin early in the second half.  What followed was a scrappy affair from both sides with Australia getting the better of the possession stakes but unable to really turn it into points.  Wallaby centre Samu Kerevi almost scored a spectacular try, but by making the basic error of holding the ball in the wrong hand going down the touch-line, he was unable to ground the ball before being bundled into touch by Springbok fullback Johan Goosen.  While it had been a spectacular run by Serevi, such basic errors in execution continue to show up the frailty of Australia’s attack at the moment.

As they have had to for much of the year, the Wallabies once more turned to centre Bernard Foley to somehow find redemption for the team.  Although out of his normal position at fly half and playing at centre, the weight of expectation seems to fall squarely on Foley’s shoulders when the chips are down.  We feel that he gets far too much criticism for any shortcomings he may have in terms of his playmaking, which is unjustified when you consider that the team constantly expects him to produce miracles from nothing. Once again Foley would produce what the Wallabies needed as he single-handedly fooled the Springbok defence with a clever dummy pass, spotted a gap and got Australia’s second five pointer.  Apart from Foley occasionally choosing to kick at seriously inopportune moments, we still feel that he is clearly one of Australia’s most versatile and talented players, without whom Australia wouldn’t have much to work with in terms of developing any kind of coherent attacking threat.  Australia were still too quiet for our liking on the wings and although once again the master of the high ball, fullback Israel Folau rarely had the support to turn any of his counterattacks into genuine strike threats.  As a result Folau gets plenty of air time in matches but little else to show for his efforts.

Australia ground out a much-needed win and if they can somehow develop themselves as a genuine attacking threat by the time they meet the Pumas this Saturday in Perth as well as shoring up their defences then it should be a close encounter.   However, we can’t help feeling that the Pumas are going to offer much more of a coherent threat than the Springboks did and as a result we are still not that clear as to how far the Wallabies have come in fixing the ills that have plagued them so far this season.  Based on the results of this match alone there is room for optimism but this Saturday’s encounter with the Pumas will be a very stern test both physically and mentally.

For South Africa they still seem rudderless when it matters most, despite the talent they have at their disposal.  Another match away from home against Test Rugby’s super heroes at the moment, the All Blacks, is going to provide them with their biggest challenge since the World Cup and one which they sadly look ill-prepared for.  Sadly we can’t help get the feeling that it is going to be a bridge too far and all that lies in wait for them this Saturday is a long and painful schooling.  Some people have likened the Springboks forthcoming meeting with New Zealand this Saturday in Christchurch to waiting outside the principal’s office for a disciplinary hearing.  You know it’s not going to be pleasant, you just don’t know how painful it’s going to be.  Matches between New Zealand and South Africa always seem to produce something special irrespective of mutual form but there is no question that this time around it is South Africa who will have to do some exceptionally serious soul-searching if they are to produce even a glimpse of the pedigree that we have come to expect from such encounters over the years.  Despite that the All Blacks will not be complacent and it is hoped that the Springboks can honor the respect they will be given this weekend by New Zealand.  We wish them well!

Endnote

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!

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