The All Black juggernaut of 2016 continued to roll on unopposed in Argentina this past weekend but once more it was put to the Test by a resurgent Puma side in the second half. We said all along that New Zealand needed to stamp their authority quickly in the first half as Argentina were likely to make some serious inroads against them in the second half if the scores were close like they were in the first Test at half time. New Zealand had a blinding start but in doing so appeared to run out of steam in the second half as Argentina became the dominant side despite trailing the All Blacks by an impossible margin. Nevertheless, from the New Zealand point of view the job was done by the half time whistle. Argentina however can still take heart from the fact that they never gave up and their second half performance was one to be proud of as they had the All Blacks under the most intense pressure for the full forty minutes. Argentina may have once more emerged the losing side, but gained yet another cornerstone in terms of how the world’s best team, New Zealand, has come to regard the Pumas as competitors of the highest order. Meanwhile in South Africa, a makeshift Springbok team defied the form books and managed to eke out a scrappy win against an Australian side that after two solid efforts in the preceding matches at home suddenly seemed to slip back into reverse gear on the road. The Springboks came away with a much-needed win, but as many pointed out, the way in which it was executed left little to celebrate as they prepare to face the All Blacks this weekend. Australia will need to go back to the drawing board as once more their discipline and handling skills fell to pieces and they were coming off second best in the forward battles, a major concern when you are going up next against a team capable of the kind of physicality and offloading ability that Argentina have been putting on display in this tournament.
South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – South Africa 18/Australia 10
Show a bit of character by some of your key players, throw in one of the most experienced kicking boots in Test Rugby and add a dash of luck and you emerge with in this case a Springbok victory in Pretoria. It never looked structured, rarely had any semblance of any kind of attacking strategy, but the Springbok performance last Saturday in Pretoria did show some real grit and character from a few key players when it was needed most. There is little doubt that this performance will cause their final opponents in this year’s tournament, New Zealand, to lose much sleep between now and Saturday. However, in a very difficult year, Saturday’s victory was important in taking some pressure off a South African side in crisis. Australia meanwhile will need to look once more at how, despite dominating possession especially in the second half as they set up base camp in the Springbok 22, they would ultimately emerge scoreless in the final 40 minutes. Once more under pressure, their Achilles Heel of poor discipline coupled to inexplicable handling errors despite the obvious talent of their players meant they would emerge empty-handed from 40 minutes of hard graft.
Despite South Africa playing with lots of intensity although not a great deal of structure, the opening minutes of this match still gave one the impression that Australia were going to be running proceedings for most of the afternoon. Australia looked much more focused and clearly had an attacking plan that South Africa could only dream of. Nevertheless, South Africa were highly combative in defense and were managing to contain the threat of a formidable Australian back line particularly in the shape of Dane Haylett-Petty, Samu Kerevi and Reece Hodges. We’ve always felt that the Wallaby scrum is a weak link and once more the Springbok front row of Captain and Hooker Adriaan Strauss alongside props Tendai Mtawarira and Vincent Koch were providing admirable service putting their Australian counterparts under all kinds of pressure which would only get worse as the match wore on. We have to give the much maligned Springbok flanker Francois Louw some well deserved recognition as in this match he was outstanding both in defence and proved to be exceptionally difficult to contain in the loose, alongside his fellow flanker Teboho Mohoje. Despite Mohoje’s poor performance in the first Test against Australia in the Championship, we feel that he has actually stood up and been counted and has been subjected to some rather unfair and slightly distasteful bias and criticism during the course of the tournament. Adriaan Strauss however was the deserved man of the match as he led by example throughout the match and to be honest we feel he has received too much unjust criticism this tournament so it was nice to see his efforts recognized. Strauss had a superb game even though sadly he was the often the only true attacking spark in the Springboks efforts in Pretoria. Strauss made some superb carries with the ball that had he been supported would have actually meant the Springboks would have actually got some tries on the board as opposed to simply points from Morne Steyn’s exceptional boot.
South Africa would open the scoring first with a superb drop goal reminiscent of Springbok glory days of old from veteran fly half Morne Steyn. The three pointer had been set up by some superb attacking play from South Africa’s forwards but this served to illustrate the fact that in terms of an attacking threat we would not see too much of South Africa’s back line in this match. Australia would soon reply with a penalty kick of their own and then follow it up with a well worked try from prop Scott Sio. The Australian try started from a counter attack by Wallaby fullback Israel Folau deep in the Wallaby 22 and would show off the Wallabies ability to string together several phases of quality ball, something which the Springboks were rarely able to emulate.
Some poor discipline by Australia would see them squander their lead and South Africa end the first half in charge at 12-10 after a reckless challenge on Springbok winger Bryan Habana by Wallaby Israel Folau resulting in the Australian fullback being sent to the bin. South Africa were able to gain the lead through a Morne Steyn penalty kick which saw the home side in charge at half time but only just.
The next forty minutes of the second half would see little in terms of either side really gain the ascendancy, even though Australia were constantly asking questions of the South African defence. That South Africa held out as well as they did and managed to keep the Australians scoreless for the final forty minutes does show some serious character, especially given that half of the team was playing out of position due to injuries and a heavily forward weighted bench. This meant that the exceptional flanker Jaco Kriel ended up playing left wing for the final quarter of the match. Nevertheless this is an issue with Coaching selections and the players should take the credit they deserve for holding out as well as they did in the face of a concerted Wallaby assault. While it lacked in terms of spectacle at times it was still a courageous and valiant performance that demonstrated that there is still plenty of character left in this troubled Springbok side.
Morne Steyn’s kicking would keep South Africa in touch and repeated errors and lapses in discipline would see the Australians constantly being shunted back to their own 22 and have to start all over again. On the Highveld at altitude you can only do this for so long before fatigue starts to set in despite the fresh legs on the bench. As a result the errors started to mount and the Wallabies cohesion and discipline started a seemingly inevitable downward slide. Morne Steyn would finish the match in the same vein as he started by slotting another perfectly timed drop goal to seal Australia’s fate and leave Springbok fans with something to cheer about once more.
This was not a great advertisement for Test rugby and especially the Southern Hemisphere. Messy and at times frantic from both sides, South Africa were lucky to get a much-needed win while Australia will wonder how they let a match that should have been theirs for the taking completely slip away from them. This Springbok performance will not enable them to beat New Zealand this Saturday and will raise more questions than answers as they prepare for a challenging tour to Europe in November. Australia know that they have the ability but still seem to lack the execution and discipline needed when it matters most. In a difficult rematch with Argentina in a neutral ground for both sides at Twickenham next Saturday, Australia will need to find the rhythm we saw glimpses of in Rounds 3 and 4 of the tournament. In short the jury is still very much out for both sides!
Argentina vs New Zealand
Final Score – Argentina 17/New Zealand 36
We said leading up to this match that New Zealand could ill afford to allow Argentina to stay close to them in the first forty minutes. While few doubted, ourselves included, that New Zealand would lose the match, we felt that the scoreline would not be as emphatic as the first time these two sides met in the tournament. In that sense we weren’t proven wrong. New Zealand knew that they had to establish a dominant lead in the first half as Argentina on home soil were likely to come back hard at them in the second half and if the scores were close it could end up being the banana peel that ended what so far has been the perfect season for the All Blacks. Argentina showed once more that they are competitive to the last even though the ability to close out a game of this magnitude still eludes them. Meanwhile for us, one of the standout players of the tournament, Pumas number eight Facundo Isa, once again made a massive statement of intent regarding the potential this young Pumas side has for the future.
Even though Argentina may have lost the first half by a significant margin it was only a torrid patch in the final four minutes of the half, that saw New Zealand score three relatively soft tries, which would ultimately put the match out of reach of the Pumas. For the first thirty minutes Argentina were always in touch and hard at the heels of the All Blacks. Had it not been for a mistake by South African referee Jaco Peyper in judging a knock on by the Pumas which instead had simply been the ball being ripped loose, the Argentinians through inspirational Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy would have had the first five pointer of the proceedings. However, it was not to be and the All Blacks recognising the threat turned up the heat in no uncertain terms. Leading by a mere three points at the end of the first quarter the All Blacks decided to match the Pumas up front physically and repeatedly opted for scrums instead of shots at goal. Their perseverance paid off and it would be centre Anton Lienert-Brown who would get New Zealand’s first try of the match as he continued to impress in his first season in an All Black jersey after some superb groundwork from his fly half Beauden Barrett.
Argentinian fly half Nicolas Sanchez would finally get Argentina on the board just past the half hour mark with a much-needed three pointer, but despite some outstanding defending by Argentina which had denied the All Blacks several golden opportunities, the Pumas suddenly hit a purple patch and the most costly four minutes of their season. New Zealand would score three tries in quick succession starting with winger Israel Dagg, followed by the incomparable Hooker Dane Coles and finally to add salt to the wound scrum half TJ Perenara, giving New Zealand a fairly unassailable lead at 29-3. As the half time whistle blew a stunned Pumas side walked from the field desperately trying to understand how they had suddenly let the game get so dramatically out of reach, after having been so competitive for the majority of the first half.
The second half would open in much the same vein as the All Blacks sought to consolidate and build on a lead that would make it all but impossible for the Pumas to salvage the match. All Black centre Anton Lienert-Brown would once more make his presence felt as he would evade the Argentinian defence and provide his fullback Ben Smith with a perfectly timed offload putting his side ahead 36-3 with only just over half an hour remaining. However, once more the Pumas refused to quit and for the next thirty minutes it was all about the men in white and blue and a relentless assault on the All Black line. Their continued pressure and some outstanding work from Puma number eight Facundo Isa would see him crash over for Argentina’s first try. New Zealand chose to take Argentina on at the scrums which was a bold move especially considering that in the final thirty minutes the All Blacks were playing for much of the time with 14 men as they were the recipients of two yellow cards. Still as always the All Blacks were masters at playing the fringes and the eventual scrum battles were effective in winding down the clock as despite the fresh legs from both benches the two teams began to tire. Despite this however it was Argentina in the driving seat and they were rewarded for their efforts by a fine try by fullback Joaquín Tuculet off a superb cross-field kick to the corner in the dying minutes of the match. It was just reward for what had been a consistent effort in the second half from Argentina which in some way made up for the dreadful lapse in concentration by the Pumas in the first half which would ultimately hand the match to New Zealand on a silver plate.
Despite the scoreline it was a thrilling encounter between two exciting teams, even though the final score made it look much more one-sided. New Zealand showed that their ability to determine the style of play required for any given match is second to none. They needed to start hard and fast in this difficult encounter on the Pumas’ home turf to put it out of reach of their hosts by the end of the first forty minutes and that is exactly what they did. Argentina will continue to take heart in the fact that they once more showed up and made the All Blacks work hard even though the ultimate result may never really have been in doubt. An encounter between these two teams is always one to savour whatever the scoreline and Saturday’s rumble in Buenos Aires was no exception. We can’t help feeling that given the talent that is coming through the ranks in Argentina, despite the riches that New Zealand possess there will come a day before the next World Cup in Japan in 2019 where an Argentine side will run the All Blacks close by within five points and perhaps even knock the World Champions off their pedestal. It may still be a dream for the Pumas and their supporters but one which they seem to inch agonisingly closer to year by year!
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!