The only real surprise in Round 4 was Australia’s dramatic resurgence against a brave Pumas challenge. Australia may not quite be the finished product yet but Saturday’s performance in Perth against Argentina finally saw them mount a challenge worthy of the Wallaby jersey. Outstanding in defence, with some sparkling attacking rugby at times, the Wallabies built on their performance against the Springboks a week earlier which saw them get many of the basics right which had till then eluded them for most of 2016. Australia looked focused and much more settled than we have seen them this year and in the first fifteen minutes were a revelation. To Argentina’s credit, after their initial shock at the Wallabies barnstorming start, they valiantly fought their way back into the match and threw everything they could at a resolute Wallaby defence. Australia had to use every trick in the book to keep the Pumas in check, but always managed to appear in charge of the scoreboard even if they often had little in the way of possession. Meanwhile in Christchurch, despite a sparkling start South Africa soon found themselves once more in a downward spiral at the hands of the All Blacks. New Zealand demonstrated that despite the proud legacy of All Black/Springbok encounters, the present state of rugby affairs in New Zealand is cause for celebration while that in South Africa appears to be one of mounting despair. As the match wore on New Zealand left an increasingly bewildered and dispirited Springbok side in their wake. As New Zealand head out on the road for the final two rounds of the Championship the only minor question still to be answered is how well they can reproduce their remarkable form away from home. Meanwhile South Africa head home to an uncomfortable two weeks of the most unforgiving criticism from their once fervent supporters who appear to have deserted them. As New Zealand have the Championship sewn up, the battle for standings by Australia, Argentina and South Africa will still provide plenty of interest, but right now our hearts go out to South Africa as of the three they seem to have the most to lose and clearly the biggest mountain to climb.
New Zealand vs South Africa
Final Score – New Zealand 41/South Africa 13
Sadly the result was never in doubt here and we predicted that New Zealand would walk away the victors by at least 25 points and we weren’t far wrong. South Africa looked initially like they might end up leaving us with as much egg on our faces as our prediction regarding the Wallabies/Pumas game, however it wasn’t to be and a certain All Black by the name of Dane Coles, who for us is a firm fan favourite, had a lot to say about it along with the rest of his exceptional teammates. Although some felt that New Zealand didn’t play their best game – they hardly needed to as South Africa steadily bumbled their way to the final whistle. We actually had trouble for much of the second half figuring out if there even was a South African side on the pitch such was the quality of the All Blacks opposition at times in this match in the final forty minutes. There is no question South Africa have now taken over from Australia as the side in crisis in this year’s Rugby Championship, made all the more frustrating for their supporters as despite the problems there is some clear talent in this group of individuals and we were treated to glimpses of it in the first half. However, the same problems seemed to once more manifest themselves in the second half. Without a clear identity and sense of what you are trying to achieve talent can suddenly become a haphazard and disorganised liability ultimately leading to frustration, desperation and finally panic. Once this sets in even the best players’ skill sets go out the window and that is very much what we saw in the final forty minutes from South Africa in Christchurch last Saturday.
As already mentioned South Africa started the match with intent and seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves while New Zealand appeared to be getting the measure of the task at hand. Once more it would be winger Bryan Habana with some quality ball who would get the Springboks a fine try and put some real spirit into the challenge. A superb offload from South African number eight Warren Whiteley would put Habana where he needed to be in space in front of a wrong footed All Black defence and the rest was history. Twenty minutes in it was 7-3 for the Springboks and there was no question they were playing well. This however seemed to be the catalyst that New Zealand needed. Two minutes later in the first of three superb try making offloads Hooker Dane Coles found winger Israel Dagg and New Zealand got their first seven points of the match and restored their lead by 1 point 8-7. From here the rot started to set in for South Africa. It must be said that Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies had a poor night of it in Christchurch and a knock on from the restart would be the first of several errors from an otherwise talented player. South Africa still managed to hold their own until just on the half hour when the All Blacks secret weapon of the match, hooker Dane Coles, made another superb offload to put winger Julian Savea over in the corner. South Africa just held on to the end of the half only trailing by 15-10 but the warning signs of their impending implosion in the second half were there for all to see.
For the second half it was, as we have seen so often in the Championship so far, all about New Zealand. Flanker Ardie Savea was proving to be at his destructive best and after helping with fullback Ben Smith’s opening try of the second half would get one of his own shortly thereafter. However, for us the moment below was the highlight of the match as Hooker Dane Coles showed off some spectacular passing skills to get lock Sam Whitelock over in the corner. Just watch this pass and you have to marvel at Coles range of skills. At the rate he is going we fully expect to see him lining up kicks for goal before the end of the year just to add another feather to his cap.
South Africa would sadly look a shadow of the side that showed so much promise in the opening 30 minutes of the match until referee Angus Gardiner blew the final whistle. In the meantime All Black scrum half TJ Perenara would add another seven pointer to New Zealand’s tally to close out a second half that the Springboks played little or no part in. Once again it had been a clinical and ruthlessly complete All Black performance. Some critics said it wasn’t the best game from the All Blacks and some chinks in their armor were exposed, but we struggled to find any. Sure fly half Beauden Barrett missed the odd kick but if you look at the number that he did knock over from difficult angles, it is clear that he lacks nothing in ability, it’s just a question of the odd dip in consistency and as always he ran a superb game for New Zealand and was a threat from anywhere on the park.
For South Africa it would have been a long plane ride home to face the knives waiting for them from their supporters and the local press. Sadly from what we could see there don’t appear to be any quick fixes in the mix any time soon. South Africa can draw little comfort from the fact that their last two fixtures of the Championship are on home soil. New Zealand will still be an almost impossible nut to crack and Australia appear to finally be out of the doldrums that have plagued them for much of 2016. The All Blacks are seemingly peerless at the moment and Australia are starting to find answers. Sadly none of this can be said for the Springboks in their current state. There will be a great deal of soul-searching by Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee and his charges over the next two weeks and with supporters and the press calling for heads to roll in South African rugby, we hope that some positives can be found sooner rather than later. International Rugby without a strong Springbok side is a sad state of affairs indeed!
Australia vs Argentina
Final Score – Australia 36/Argentina 20
As already mentioned in the comments section of our preview for this match last week, we offer a heartfelt apology to Australia and their supporters for getting our predictions for this match so wrong. We did put the caveat in that if Australia really stepped it up a few gears there was the foundation for a solid win, we just didn’t think that they could make that kind of quantum leap in the space of a week. While it wasn’t perfect and there are still a ton of checklists for Australian Coach Michael Cheika and his charges to get through especially in the discipline department, there is no denying that the crisis facing Australian rugby has been averted and the patient seems to be responding well to treatment. A tough road trip awaits but there is certainly a basis now for some healthy optimism for the Wallabies and their supporters.
For Argentina, it is a case of another match gone begging. Despite Australia’s lightning start scoring three unanswered tries in the first fifteen minutes, Argentina was very much in this game and fought back magnificently. However, they will be scratching their heads as to how with the lion’s share of territory and possession (68 and 67% respectively), they ended up losing by 16 points. In fairness to Argentina once they had recovered from the initial shock of the Wallabies first three tries they appeared the more focused and disciplined side. For the rest of the match however, the few opportunities the Wallabies did get they were just that more effective in turning them into points. In addition, there is no denying that the Wallabies’ defensive structures were of superhuman proportions as they faced a relentless assault from the Pumas for the remainder of the match.
Australia started this match at a blinding pace and their opening three tries were of the highest quality. Centre Samu Kerevi would score in the first 45 seconds to make amends for poor technique in giving away a certain try in similar circumstances the week before against the Springboks. Winger Dane Haylett-Petty would be up next after a superbly timed offload from fly half Quade Cooper. Finally scrum half Will Genia would seize the day from a brilliantly timed tackle on Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez as the ball was dislodged and the Wallaby scrum half was able to hack it on and ultimately outstrip a scrambling Pumas defence. We have to say that we have really liked what we have seen from Will Genia so far this tournament and he has improved with every match. This outing was clearly his best and his efforts were well rewarded with two superb tries. He along with centre Bernard Foley, has been the catalyst of the Wallabies ability to suddenly start playing some quality attacking rugby. We even have to admit that fly half Quade Cooper had a fairly decent outing in a Wallaby jersey for a change. However, Cooper did resort to type towards the end of the match as he was the recipient of a yellow card for a late tackle on Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez. Just when we were about to revise our opinion on his ability to go from hero to villain in the blink of an eye Cooper seemed to revert back to type – sorry Quade bit more work to do there yet we’re afraid before we change our tune!
This perhaps highlights the one aspect that will be a concern overall for Australian Coach Michael Cheika after this match. After the Wallabies inital try blitzkrieg, Argentina were allowed back into the match due to a mounting penalty count against the Wallabies, including a yellow card and as the half time whistle sounded Australia had scored no points for the remaining 25 minutes of the half and it had been all about Argentina.
Argentina knew they needed to get the first points of the second half and set about doing just that. Some initial superb work by Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet, saw him break through several attempted tackles and Argentina kept possession enough to eventually get the ball out wide to danger man winger Santiago Cordero and all of a sudden the Pumas were very much back in the match at 21-13 down. However, Wallaby scrum half Will Genia would once more restore order through a brilliant second try and his half back partner Quade Cooper would provide another sly offload to put Wallaby flanker Michael Hooper through the middle and over the white line. With the score now at 33-13 for the Wallabies you would have thought the Pumas heads might have gone down with only fifteen minutes left. No such luck for the Wallabies as the Pumas continued to hammer away at the Australian defences till the final whistle. Their efforts were rewarded with ten minutes to go, as the outstanding Pumas number 8 Facundo Isa would worm his way to the white line making it 33-20. Argentina continued to ask questions till referee Wayne Barnes’ final whistle but some spectacular and heroic Wallaby defence ensured that Australia’s castle walls would remain safe for the rest of the match. Wallaby winger Reece Hodge continued to impress after his debut in this tournament and landed another monster penalty kick with five minutes left on the clock to put the match out of reach of a spirited Pumas side by 36-20 for Australia. Argentina kept trying until the dying seconds, but were always going to struggle to get back from 21-0 in the first fifteen minutes of the match which had ultimately made it too much of a mountain to climb so early on.
As the final whistle sounded, two exhausted and battered teams staggered off a pitch where they had given it their all for eighty minutes. Our hearts went out to Argentina for putting up such an epic fight which sadly all came to nought, while we had to pay Australia our respects for that spectacular whirlwind start and then a resolute and at times heroic defence which enabled them to hang on against a ferocious Argentinian response for the remainder of the match. Australia will want to take a hard look at the penalty count in this match as unless this is addressed, and let’s be honest it continues to be their biggest Achilles Heel, all the good work we’ve seen over the last two weeks is ultimately unsustainable. Fix that and there is plenty of ground for optimism in Australia. Australia’s scrums and lineouts are finally starting to click, while their defence is starting to look rock solid. Finally, courtesy of Bernard Foley and Will Genia there is the nucleus of a real attacking threat as the supporting cast of Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty and Samu Kerevi start to gel. Add to that the mercurial presence of Quade Cooper and on a good day Australia are clearly capable of mixing it with the best. However, we can’t help feeling that until we see how this Australian side performs on the road, it is still too early to judge how much progress they have made since that horror start to 2016.
For Argentina it is back to video analysis once again to try to work out how such a strong performance could once more leave them so empty-handed on the scoreboard. Unlike the game against the All Blacks a week earlier, the Pumas never lost their edge for the full eighty minutes and that is something their supporters must find cause to celebrate even though they found it hard to turn their dominance into points on the board. Like many we still love watching this team play and feel that there is a depth and quality that is developing in Argentina’s player base at a rate of knots. Not there yet but getting closer with every match, Argentina continues to rate as an exceptionally challenging team to play and one which come November, is likely to claim a few Northern Hemisphere scalps. With a home Test against the All Blacks in which they should do well followed by an intriguing contest at Twickenham against Australia for the final match of the Championship, this tournament still has plenty to offer the Pumas and their supporters. We know we’ll be glued to our television screens for the last two rounds of the Championship!
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!