As New Zealand once more remain the undisputed winners of the Rugby Championship, we use the last round to reflect on the lessons learnt for all the teams.

Posted: October 17, 2017 in Rugby Championship 2017
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The final round of the Rugby Championship saw New Zealand emerge once more as the dominant force in this tournament by a country mile, but the last weekend did produce one of the most epic Tests of the year as the All Blacks and Springboks went to battle in Cape Town. It was a Test match that had all the qualities that make encounters between these two old rivals so special, and in doing so it made sure that one of the most anticipated fixtures on the annual Test calendar lived up to its vintage pedigree. The match between Argentina and Australia by comparison was always going to struggle to be viewed in the same light but it still provided an entertaining spectacle and while it may have raised more questions than answers for Pumas supporters, Wallaby fans can certainly look forward to a tough November tour of Europe with some degree of optimism.

So let’s look at the teams in the order they finished to try to figure out what they have learnt over the course of the last two months starting with New Zealand.

New Zealand

New Zealand may have emerged once more as all-conquering heroes, but just as we saw on the Lions tour to the land of the long white cloud earlier this year, they didn’t quite have things all their own way as well as not being at their ruthless and clinical best at times. New Zealand have clearly started their buildup to the World Cup in Japan in two years time in earnest, and as a result have used this tournament in particular to develop some depth, blood new players and experiment with combinations. While they may have occasionally tripped over their boot laces in doing so at times, we would have to say that the experiment has been successful as a whole. The raw talent that New Zealand put on display during the course of the tournament was spectacular, and while it may still be a bit rough round the edges, their arsenal of skilled players who are only going to get better must surely look terrifying to those who will be attempting to knock them off their World Cup pedestal in Japan in two years time.

New Zealand suffered their fair share of injuries during the tournament, causing them to develop a very capable and effective back up front row, which as far as we could see had absolutely no weaknesses in the shape of Codie Taylor, Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala. The regular stalwarts of Dane Coles, Owen Franks and Joe Moody are clearly Head Coach Steve Hansen’s first choice, but these three understudies mean that New Zealand want for nothing in terms of consistency and prowess once the bench is called into play.

New Zealand, in the shape of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, clearly have the world’s best second row partnership without question. However, add the figure of Scott Barrett as a partner to either of these two and New Zealand lose very little in terms of a starting XV. We’d argue that South Africa perhaps has the slightly more comprehensive depth here, but New Zealand’s premier pairing of Whitelock and Retallick has become such a benchmark in terms of a world-class second row, that it is still going to be very difficult for any team to really cause New Zealand consistent problems here.

Back row depth continues to be a huge strength for New Zealand, as it has for quite some time now. The retirement of the legendary Richie McCaw seems to have caused New Zealand very few problems. Kieran Read is rising admirably to the task of filling McCaw’s massive boots as Captain, to the point that for many of us, it’s hard to believe he has only been in the role since last year. Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Matt Todd are all household names when it comes to talking about Test Rugby back rows, and a certain Vaea Fifita made us all think that the mighty Jonah Lomu had been reincarnated.  Fifita’s Test debut in the home game against Argentina was nothing short of spectacular. Ardie Savea seems to be the impact player of choice off the bench, and his frenetic energy causes opposition defences all kinds of headaches as he simply pops up everywhere.

Just as Retallick and Whitelock take global honors for the World’s best second row, New Zealand’s half back partnership of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett do the same for the 9 and 10 spot, with TJ Perenara making sure that nothing is lost in terms of intensity off the bench. However, as good as these two are, it does raise for us one question about New Zealand and that is where does New Zealand really stand if Beauden Barrett is not available? New Zealand rely so heavily on the young man that his understudy Lima Sopoaga, a fine player in his own right, simply hasn’t had the amount of game time that we think he should have got during this tournament, especially with an eye to the World Cup. Furthermore, Barrett’s goalkicking is a clear cause of concern for New Zealand – spot on one match and then seemingly unable to hit a barn door the next. His brother Jordi Barrett has been put forward as an answer to the goalkicking duties as has the exceptional Damian McKenzie. However, as good as Barrett is this is something which New Zealand will really need to seek some answers to in November.

New Zealand had so much talent on display in the backs during this tournament, that we actually forgot that Ben Smith only played in the opening two matches. Winger Rieko Ioane clearly came into his own in this tournament as did Damian McKenzie. Ioane’s debut on the Lions tour made us sit up and take notice and he continued to impress in this tournament – clearly a player who is just going to get better and better. The tournament also saw the welcome return of Nehe Milner-Skudder who then sadly was once more ruled out with injury. The wings are perhaps still the one area where New Zealand still looks slightly unsettled and the continuing injury count here is not helping them find solutions. In the centres the question is simply what is the long-term centre combination? Is it Ryan Crotty/Anton Lienert-Brown or Crotty/Sonny-Bill Williams? To be honest we are still unable to answer this question by the end of the tournament. It would seem that Hansen prefers the Crotty/Williams combination with Lienert-Brown being favored as the impact player off the bench. We still argue that Lienert-Brown is the more creative player than Williams but there is no denying Williams’ ability to make solid and bruising impact up the inside channels. Perhaps November will put this question to bed once and for all.

Lastly, we take our hats off to Damian McKenzie at fullback. This was his chance to really show what he can do and try to make the 15 jersey his. Sure he tripped up a few times in the process, but overall we thought he made an exceptional contribution to the All Blacks’ efforts over the last two months. Agreed his place kicking sometimes lacked some finesse, and his defensive work could occasionally be called into question, but give this guy some space and some extraordinary things start to happen on the rugby pitch. His diminutive size seems not to matter as he hurls himself into tackles on players twice his size and stature with fearless abandon, while being almost impossible to bring down himself. This is an extraordinary player in our opinion and someone who is going to feature heavily in New Zealand’s plans for Japan. He has earned his stripes and his right to be an integral part of any starting All Black XV, it now remains to be seen how New Zealand use him between now and 2019.

In summary, are New Zealand still THE benchmark team in Test Rugby? Without any shadow of a doubt yes! Are they as polished as in years gone by? Perhaps not but the lack of shine at times, given the extraordinary depth of talent at their disposal, is only a temporary illusion. To defeat New Zealand is not beyond the realm of possibility but it will have to be a rather extraordinary team that does it, and with New Zealand’s remarkable ability to regroup after any setback, don’t expect it to happen with any degree of regularity.

Australia

You could have been forgiven for thinking that Australia were potential contenders for the wooden spoon in this year’s Rugby Championship, therefore their second place finish is certainly cause for celebration by their supporters. Australia’s transformation started in the second half of the opening match against New Zealand and was confirmed in their heartbreaking loss to the All Blacks in Dunedin a week later. Australia are back and starting to look ominous once more which one could argue is the perfect trajectory leading up to a World Cup in two years.

Australia’s scrum has been the laughing-stock of Test Rugby for the last two years, but in this tournament while being a long way from dominant it has finally become a reliable platform for the Wallabies, coupled to some solid lineout throwing. The front row partnership of Sekope Kepu, Scott Sio and Tatafu Polota-Nau seems to be working and what’s more can hold its own. New Zealand and South Africa have some exceptional front row prowess and Australia showed in this tournament that they can now be competitive once more at scrum time, with their notorious ill-discipline vastly improved. On a tough November tour, we’ll get a real test of how much progress Australia have really made here.

For us one of the most exciting developments for Australia has been in the second row. We have consistently been fans of Adam Coleman, and he certainly did not disappoint in this tournament. Furthermore, put him together with Rory Arnold and the signposts to Japan could not be clearer. Australia spent a lot of time tinkering with who should partner Coleman, and the jury seems to be very much out in terms of a verdict here and likely to remain so certainly until the end of November. We prefer the Arnold option but it seems that Coach Michael Cheika seems to be in two minds, and we hope for some consistency in terms of selection decisions come November.

Australia’s back row is clearly becoming a force to be reckoned with once more, especially once David Pocock returns next year. Michael Hooper seems to be responding well to the Captain’s role, and once he got over his wobbles in the first half of the opening match of the tournament, he ended up being a wrecking ball for the rest of the tournament. Australia tinkered all Championship in terms of selecting his partner to the point where we can’t really see any clear patterns developing here, plenty of potential, but no real answers. At number eight, Sean McMahon had some really outstanding performances, but then by the same token on a few occasions also failed to show up. His departure to Japan will clearly pose the Australian selectors with some headaches between now and the World Cup.

In the half backs, consistency seemed to be Australia’s biggest problem. Fly half Bernard Foley is not having a good year, especially when it comes to kicking duties. When it does fire for him we still think he is an exceptional player, but he has struggled to string together some solid performances this year, and with no real backup for this position, Australia surely have some concerns here. Will Genia at scrum half was outstanding at times, but then other matches he appeared strangely quiet. Many, ourselves included, thought that prior to the start of the tournament he had reached his sell by date, but the second Test against New Zealand proved us all wrong in no uncertain terms. However, his replacement, Nick Phipps is still too much of a wild card for us and the November tour to Europe should have the goal of getting some consistency in terms of Australia’s abilities here as a key focus.

In the backs, Australia have experienced a renaissance harking back to the glory days of Australian rugby. The centre partnership of Kurtley Beale and Tevita Kuridrani is world-class and something we expect to see lighting up the pitches of Europe come November. Beale has transformed himself into some sort of magician since his time in England, and alongside Kuridrani who seems able to batter his way through opposition defences at will, this is a highly effective and dangerous combination. On the wings the revelation of the last two Tests was Rugby League convert Marika Koroibete. We had our doubts but were blown away by this gentleman’s speed and power – in short look out Europe! Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty, once the latter returns from injury, also look exceptional strike threats and Australia should feel pretty confident about their abilities on the park in this department. Lastly Israel Folau showed us on numerous occasions how dangerous he can be, but also he appeared guilty of not showing up for some matches and putting others on the back burner. Just like their half backs Australia need some consistency from this exceptional player.

Australia, have gone from being a bit of a laughing-stock last year, to rapidly developing into a quietly smoking gun this year. Anyone who takes the threat they pose lightly will be in for a nasty shock – England, Scotland and Wales you have been warned! We also think that the third Bledisloe Cup match, although a dead rubber, will be a genuinely interesting contest this Saturday in Brisbane.

South Africa

Like Australia, South Africa have emerged from the ashes of their nightmare 2016 season in fine fettle. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the Test against the All Blacks a fortnight ago in Cape Town was one of the best of 2017, and the Springboks must take enormous credit for making it such a spectacle. We had predicted a bloodbath and were absolutely delighted to have been proven completely wrong. It was an epic performance from South Africa and one that must surely give them enormous confidence heading into a tough end of year tour. Some have said that Springbok rugby as we know it is dead but we have to disagree. You don’t put in a performance like that against the best side in the world if you are a team in decline.

It was South Africa’s front row that proved to be one of the talking points of the tournament, and Hooker Malcolm Marx in particular. Although Marx had a shocker of a game in New Zealand against the All Blacks, in every other Test he was outstanding and in the final match in Cape Town his performance was off the charts and the stuff of Springbok legends. In short, he was for us perhaps the player of the tournament, and a fantastic weapon in South Africa’s arsenal. Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen provided the stability to a South African scrum that proved difficult to gain any traction on. The loss of Oosthuizen to injury was a huge blow to South Africa and their performance suffered as a result, as Ruan Dreyer is unfortunately not the answer at tighthead. How they fix this for November remains to be seen, but as evidenced in Cape Town a fortnight ago it is not beyond the realm of possibility and we like the look of new prop Wilco Louw as a possible solution. Furthermore if the Beast runs out of puff, then Steven Kitshoff is a very worthy replacement even in the starting XV. To be honest his performance in Cape Town was so impressive we’d actually argue for giving him an increasing role in the starting XV as preparation for Japan.

In the second row, South Africa showed they had an abundance of depth. Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Lood de Jaeger run on like a veritable honor roll of Test rugby second rowers. The jury is still out for us on Etzebeth in the Captaincy role and how he handles himself on the road in November will be the ultimate Test for us. Nevertheless in Cape Town we felt he really stood up and was counted, after letting the side down against Australia the week before, especially as Captain, as his infamous temper got the better of him. Furthermore, much to our surprise, given that previous experiments in this regard hadn’t worked, Du Toit showed in Cape Town that he is also a pretty handy back rower to boot.

In the back row, South Africa has got some real power and pace. As mentioned above, Pieter-Steph du Toit stood out in this role in Cape Town, and regulars like Jaco Kriel and the exceptional Siya Kolisi were outstanding. Francois Louw also made a welcome return to Test rugby and impressed both at 7 and eight, while Jean-Luc du Preez is also a real talent in the making in both positions. However, long-term questions remain regarding who best to play at number eight in the absence of regular and Captain Warren Whiteley. Debutant for this season Uzair Cassiem often looked out of his depth in the role and South Africa played better in his absence.

In the half backs, South Africa have a solid, albeit not spectacular, partnership in the shape of Elton Jantjies at fly half and Ross Cronje at scrum half. They may not have the razzle dazzle of their New Zealand, Australian and Argentine counterparts but you know what you’re going to get from these two and it often translates into reliability and points on the board. The brief return of fly half Handre Pollard in the Cape Town Test made us all sit up and take notice and it will be interesting to see how he and Jantjies share the duties come November.

In the backs though the jury still remains out for us in terms of where South Africa is at. Jan Serfontein was impressive at times at centre and Andries Coetzee made an excellent start to his Test career at fullback. However we struggled to find any patterns of play evident in the back five during the course of the Championship, whereas the developments and improvements taking place amongst the forwards were clear to see for everyone. To be honest we are hoping that where South Africa is heading in terms of its back line play will become more evident to us come the November Tests. We know that wingers Courtnall Skosan and Dillyn Leyds can be exciting players, and must confess to really liking what we saw from Leyds both in attack and defence in the last two Tests. However, these players appeared to be used almost sporadically by the rest of the team throughout the Championship. Furthermore, alarm bells continue to ring in how South Africa finds a bench that can field some impact when it comes to the backs. Sadly we are not seeing much to get excited about. If Damian de Allende is as good as it gets then that’s not really saying much and something South African supporters must be genuinely concerned about with two years to go before the World Cup.

South Africa, despite the shock and horror of the one-off 57-0 defeat in New Zealand, have like Australia made some really positive progress during the course of this tournament. For the most part, especially up front, they are in an excellent place. For us it is lingering concerns about their back line and their ability to perform outside of South Africa that remain nagging questions. The November Tour will hopefully answer at least the question relating to whether or not South Africa can translate the kind of epic display they put on in Cape Town to a string of consistent performances on the road next month. Either way though it is great to see this traditionally proud rugby nation have something to cheer about once more.

Argentina

If you have to ask the question what has Argentina learnt from the Rugby Championship, the answer is sadly not much! Right now they seem to be a sixty minute team, blessed with remarkable individual talent but a complete lack of patience and cohesion in their game play. As a result their performances look error strewn mishaps made worse by constant breakdowns in discipline as their frustrations mount. Probably the most pertinent lesson they can take from this tournament is that not being able to use their overseas based players is severely hampering the potential of Argentinian rugby to remain competitive at Test level. Furthermore, the tournament has brought Coach Daniel Hourcade into the spotlight in rather negative terms, and sadly he seems to have fallen rather dramatically from being seen in such a positive light after the last World Cup.

Argentina’s once dominant scrum prowess sadly seems to have become a thing of the past. There is no question that Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is one of the best in the world, and the inspiration he provides to his team is second to none. However, the rest of his teammates in the front row have sadly not been able to back him up. As a result the Pumas scrum has rarely struck fear into the hearts of their opposition for quite a while now. Quite frankly we are struggling to see any long-term solutions to this.

The second row is perhaps one area where Argentina have learnt the most. Tomas Lavanini despite his passion for the jersey would seem to be too much of a disciplinary headache for the Pumas. Our heart actually goes out to him as wearing the jersey clearly means so much to him, just watch him struggling to keep the tears at bay during the national anthems at the start of their second Test against the All Blacks in Buenos Aires, but that emotion clearly gets the better of him when it comes to physical confrontation. Consequently the partnership of Matias Alemanno and Guido Petti would appear to be the way forward for Argentina, and to be fair this is a solid platform with Alemanno really standing out over the last two months. There appears to be some depth here as well in the shape of Marcos Kremer.

In the back rows, Argentina have also learnt that they can produce quality number eights. Like many we felt that the loss of the exceptional Facundo Isa to Toulon would spell the end of Argentina’s proven traction in this position. However, Tomas Lezana has clearly stepped up to the plate and performed admirably and shown plenty of promise, meaning that the loss of Isa has clearly not proven to be the national tragedy that many predicted. Pablo Matera was one of the top performers in terms of loose flankers throughout the tournament, with Javier Ortega Desio providing him with more than ample support. Benjamin Macome also made some impressive debuts, leaving us with the opinion that while there are concerns as to what Argentina’s back row unit may look like in the long run, there is no doubt that there is plenty to work with, and that perhaps can be regarded as one of the positive lessons learnt from Argentina’s Rugby Championship.

In the half backs Argentina know they have plenty of class, but increasingly lack the patience or skill set to pull off the rather elaborate type of game they are trying to play. Scrum half Martin Landajo and fly half Nicolas Sanchez are exciting players, but they are clearly not firing individually and together as a unit. Sanchez in particular appears to be struggling to find his rhythm of seasons past. However, neither of them appear to have the skill set to run the kind of game they are trying to execute. In short, they are making Argentina look over ambitious in one breath and impatient the next.

In the backs, the problems at half back are accentuated. Argentina is blessed with some wonderful talent in the backs. Fullback Joaquin Tuculet, wingers Emiliano Boffelli and Matias Moroni and centre Matias Orlando are all exceptional players, but sadly appear to be operating in an outfit that rarely knows how to use their talents. Consequently they are expected to produce miracles as individuals as opposed to operating within a clearly thought out and well executed game plan. It’s this last point which perhaps stands out the most in terms of what Argentina has learnt from this tournament. They seem to be bereft of direction both off and on the field. You would be hard pressed to identify what Argentina’s strengths are as a team. There are plenty of individual talents but you rarely see them at work in terms of a team performance.

Argentina have to find some answers and fast, but sadly we think that there is more disappointment ahead of them next month. A poor Rugby Championship devoid of results is not the kind of track record that you want to be taking on the road on a tour where you will be going up against the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere – England and Ireland. Perhaps they will surprise us all and in the process learn the lessons that they should have learnt over the last two months. We hope that November is a positive experience for Argentina as it has saddened us to see the promise they showed in the last World Cup amount to very little in the last two years, especially given the talent they have at their disposal.

Endnote

As always we end with another excellent video from the lads at the 1014. This review of the 2017 Rugby Championship provides some fascinating insights into the tournament and the players which will give us plenty to think about and look forward to come the November Internationals. Enjoy and make sure you like and subscribe!

Comments
  1. Mick McNeill says:

    Great roundup review Neil, can’t wait for the November clashes in Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

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