The Rugby Championship saves its best for last as we review the tournament and Canada makes the long trek to the Andes with more than a few mountains to climb!

This year’s Rugby Championship after several false starts and plenty of hiccoughs along the way finished with an epic showdown last weekend between New Zealand and South Africa. While South Africa may have faltered a few times this Championship and their game plan has been under considerable scrutiny by supporters and media alike, they produced their best for last and with the All Blacks gave us a Test match for the ages and one which paid tribute to the legendary rivalry between these two great sides. It was riveting stuff from start to finish and a fabulous advert for our glorious game. South Africa may have only ended up finishing third overall but those two performances against New Zealand proved that the Springbok machine, despite needing some fine tuning and much needed development for the future, is a rather daunting prospect for any side seeking to knock them off their perch at the top of the World Rankings Table.

New Zealand won the tournament almost effortlessly until those last two games against their greatest rivals South Africa. They breezed past Australia and Argentina, and squeaked a narrow and messy win against the Springboks in Round 5 which saw them with the Championship sewn up by the time they headed into last weekend’s epic showdown with South Africa. New Zealand looked good make no mistake and were worthy winners, but as the two Tests against South Africa showed this is not the all conquering All Black side of the Richie McCaw years. Are they contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy in two years time in France? Absolutely, but this is still a side with plenty of work to do, and that clinical finishing that is a hallmark of the All Blacks is just not there yet at the level of consistency needed.

Australia after being given a hiding by New Zealand in the first two rounds, suddenly came alive for their final four games. While we think it’s rather premature to think, as some are saying, that they are in the hunt to lift the World Cup in two years time, if they keep developing the way they are then it’s a distinct possibility. In getting past the World Champions South Africa twice in a row, Australia showed that the investment they are making in this new crop of Wallaby talent is paying huge dividends. The Championship saw the return to the fold of some old veterans, most notably fly half Quade Cooper, and this exciting blend of raw, youthful talent with some wise and skillful older heads is proving to be a winning formula that just gets better with every outing. In short – WATCH THIS SPACE!

Argentina sadly failed to fire a shot in this tournament, and left it clutching nothing but the wooden spoon and some seriously wounded pride. It would seem that a year spent mostly on the road and in and out of various COVID bubbles, has taken its toll. Argentina looked disjointed and just couldn’t seem to click as a unit despite some outstanding individual performances. However, in all their games they never looked like they lacked the passion synonymous with the Pumas jersey. At times their defense was heroic and one of the best aspects of their performances, showing a cohesion that the rest of their game lacked. In short, this is not a team that is down and out and bereft of talent. On the contrary, the talent is there and has the potential to make Argentina once more the top flight Test side that has consistently turned heads at the last two World Cups. Much like Australia, in addition to the quality experienced players at their disposal they have unearthed a raft of new talent that is already looking ominous and likely to amass some serious experience in Europe in the next two years.

So here’s our review of how we thought each of the four participating teams fared as well as a look ahead to Canada’s absolutely critical second round of their qualifying bid for the World Cup against Chile. They secured an uncomfortably narrow victory last weekend, meaning that Chile only has to beat them at home this Saturday by two points to knock Canada out of contention. In short, tense times in the Andes this weekend.

New Zealand

New Zealand emerged as worthy Champions this year as they have done nine times over since it was expanded to include Argentina in 2012. In the 11 Championships since 2012 New Zealand have won nine of them with Australia and South Africa claiming a title each.

New Zealand had to chop and change their squad several times during the Championship, and some rather experimental sides emerged as a result. This in part explains some of New Zealand’s weaker performances especially against South Africa as they were without some of their key players. Nevertheless, they still looked the business more often than not. However,they struggled at times with aerial assaults favored by teams such as South Africa, something that Ireland and France will be keenly aware of and hoping to exploit next month.

Some players that really caught our eye and ones we hope to see more of in the next year are back rowers Akira Ioane and Luke Jacobsen, scrum half Brad Weber and winger Will Jordan. Meanwhile all the usual suspects like Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane, Brodie Retallick, Ardie Savea – the list simply goes on and on, brought plenty of the razzle dazzle which makes New Zealand such an exciting side to watch. When New Zealand can perform so well with their B or even C string sides, you know the rest of the world will be looking nervously over their shoulder in the run up to France 2023. This video is a fairly accurate summary of just how well New Zealand are starting to warm up.

South Africa exposed some chinks in the armor but it was hard to critique an All Black side that looks alarmingly good

Australia

After watching the Wallabies receive a rather stern schooling from the All Blacks in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship, we never really thought that we’d see Australia finish as this year’s runners up despite their impressive series win against France earlier this summer. The improvement in Australia, starting with that memorable but closely fought victory over reigning World Champions South Africa, was the start of a Wallaby rugby renaissance that has been long overdue. There were so many impressive performances, but this young lad who, prior to the tournament hardly anyone had ever heard of, took the Championship by storm and scored more tries than anyone else – wing sensation Andrew Kellaway. He will definitely be a player to watch next month as the Wallabies embark on a tour of Europe which sees them take on England’s young guns, as well as Wales and Scotland.

Australia’s most exciting find of 2021 – winger Andrew Kellaway

As impressive as Kellaway was, there were other highly notable names that played a part in this year’s Wallaby rebirth. Prop Taniela Tupou was simply outstanding demonstrating a range of skills more befitting halfbacks and wingers at times. Darcy Swain was a revelation in a second row that looks very impressive indeed with Matthew Philip and the return of Izack Rodda. Their back row was simply superb with Captain extraordinaire Michael Hooper becoming the Wallabies most capped Skipper and newcomer Rob Valetini was outstanding at number eight. A big bruising ball carrier who is almost impossible to stop, Australia looked in exceptionally rude health with Valetini getting better with every outing and then bolstered by the long overdue return of Sean McMahon. Tate McDermott impressed as Australia’s next generation scrum half, while Quade Cooper made a spectacular comeback to the Wallaby fold at fly half – demonstrating a maturity and composure often lacking in his younger days despite his obvious talent. Samu Kerevi tore up the centre channels and we’ve already sung the praises of Andrew Kellaway ably assisted by the superb Marika Koroibete.

In short, a remarkable tournament for Australia and it was superb to see the Wallabies back in contention for top honors in Test rugby.

South Africa

On home soil, South Africa dispatched Argentina twice with ease, but then as they often do found life on the road slightly more challenging than they had imagined. They wobbled dramatically in two back to back defeats to Australia. However, as they always do they raised their game dramatically against their most famous rivals New Zealand. In the first Test they ran a misfiring New Zealand side close, but that final Test last weekend produced THE game of the tournament and potentially the year. It was a game that did the rivalry between these two legendary sides justice – it was hugely physical, filled with game changing moments and the scoreline changed hands almost as often as Guinness barrels are changed at the Aviva during an England/Ireland match.

It was thrilling stuff and kept us on the edge of our seats. What was perhaps most impressive was how South Africa finally backed themselves and decided to use their physical prowess to play with ball in hand instead of simply relying on their much maligned kicking game. At key moments they capitalized on the forward momentum their pack was giving them over New Zealand and used it build an attacking platform. It was a breath of fresh air and if they move forward with it then England, Scotland and Wales could all be in for a rather torrid time next month.

It’s going to take a pretty special match to beat the intensity of South Africa and New Zealand’s Round 6 encounter in the Rugby Championship

Their famous Bomb Squad front row of Malcolm Marx, Stephen Kitshoff and Vincent Koch were superb off the bench against New Zealand and Argentina, while Trevor Nyakane, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe all put in some outstanding efforts this tournament as starters. Once Eben Etzebeth got all his fury and fire back again he was immense in the second Test against New Zealand, and his partner Lood de Jager was arguably the best lock of the tournament. Captain Siya Kolisi consistently led the back row and his team as a whole from the front, with his two performances against the All Blacks being perhaps some of his finest of an increasingly illustrious career. Kwagga Smith proved what value he is to the Springbok cause provided they use him in a roving wing forward role, while Franco Mostert quietly but effectively produced the goods for South Africa week in week out, whether in second or back row.

South Africa’s halfbacks had a mixed tournament. Faf de Klerk was not at his best at times and was often guilty of the aimless kicking game that got South Africa into difficulty against Australia. Handre Pollard lacked consistency for much of the tournament, with him having serious off days with the boot when it came to goal kicking accuracy. South Africa need some development for the future there, make no mistake and sooner rather than later, though it was heartening to see Elton Jantjies finally make the transition to a Test level 10, in that final game of the Championship.

South Africa’s backs were outstanding when they had the ball, which sadly happened far too little until the final game. Makazole Mapimpi looked sharp as did Sibu Nkosi out wide, while Lukhanyo Am’s try assist in the final Test showed what a brillliant organiser he is of South Africa’s midfield efforts. Am is a truly gifted centre ably assisted by the exceptionally powerful Damian de Allende. However, at fullback South Africa desperately need to look to the future as sadly Willie le Roux was a consistent weak link in their armor. We sincerely hope that come their November tour to Europe we’ll be seeing a lot of Aphelele Fassi as the way forward in the fullback role.

South Africa started with a flourish against Argentina, went horribly off boil against Australia but returned with a bang against New Zealand. In short they have a huge amount of work to do to remain competitive in the run up to the World Cup, but as last Saturday showed – as reigning World Champions they are still very much alive.

Argentina

A tournament they would probably rather forget, but moments like this showed us that the Pumas are still a sleeping giant! What was perhaps even more heartening about this try was that it was set up by a long overdue understudy for star fly half Nicholas Sanchez, newcomer Santiago Carreras.

Just one small example of what Argentina can do on attack when it all comes together

That was the overriding impression of Argentina’s Rugby Championship campaign – it was an exercise in development. Coach Mario Ledesma blooded a significant proportion of new talent, some by choice and some by necessity but in most cases the results of the exercise were positive. The more experienced members of the squad, although they often failed to gel with the newcomers as a unit performed admirably at an individual level. Captain and Hooker Julian Montoya was arguably the best in his position and led by example whatever his team’s standing on the scoreboard. The Argentinian second row of Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti, ably assisted by Matias Alemanno were a menace for opposition teams come lineout time. In the back row Marcos Kremer put in one powerhouse performance after another. On the wing Emiliano Boffelli scored Argentina’s best try of the tournament and showed how much the Pumas have missed him due to injury recently, coupled to a boot that is one of the most powerful in the modern game.

However, it was Argentina’s new crop of talent that really impressed us and must surely give the Pumas hope for a brighter future. Replacement Hooker Thomas Gallo really made us sit up and take notice in the Pumas final game against Australia, when he scored two tries on his debut and we can’t wait for his return to Italian club side Benetton in the United Rugby Championship. Flanker Juan Martin Gonzalez looks like another in a long line of quality Pumas back rowers in the making. Replacement scrum half Gonzalo Garcia made some energy filled appearances off the bench, and often looked more of a threat than regular starter Gonzalo Bertranou. Santiago Carreras made a seemingly effortless transition from fullback to becoming fly half Nicolas Sanchez’s replacement in the making and was one of the Pumas most exciting players on attack. The new center partnership of Santiago Chocobares and Olympic sevens stars Lucio Cinti looks exceptionally promising.

It was a tough tournament for an Argentinian side simply not used to coming away empty handed from the Rugby Championship. Nevertheless some vital work in squad development for the future was made and from what we saw, we feel fairly confident that the Pumas will be back challenging the world’s best in time for the next World Cup. Patience will be their most important virtue over the coming months, but the improvements will come.

Canada head to South America knowing that their duel with Chile is do or die stuff

Firstly, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t even know all of this is going on and that Canada is once more teetering on the brink of not qualifying for the next World Cup. The publicity on Canada’s campaign to qualify for the next global showdown is almost nonexistent. Finding replays of their first match against Chile last weekend which they narrowly won is almost impossible.

Canada failed in their bid to secure the first World Cup berth for the Americas as they lost the series against the US on aggregate, despite winning their first game against the Eagles which was arguably the best performance we’d seen them give in years. The win against Chile last weekend looked labored at times and discipline was not always the best. While the officiating was at times confusing, it can’t be used as an excuse for yet another sub par performance. As usual it wasn’t for want of effort from the boys, but as a unit they simply didn’t look as cohesive as Chile, and in the second game against the USA before that they looked a shambles.

Canada keeps making winning look like exceptionally hard work

Chile head into Saturday’s match as favorites, being the home side coupled to coming off the back of a number of impressive performances to date, including a one point loss to Canada in Langford last weekend. Canada have the potential but somehow it is just not being realized, and it’s getting increasingly hard to keep making excuses for them. Captain and flanker Lucas Rumball along with centre Ben LeSage are both top notch players and this weekend sees the added bonus of Canada benefitting from the return of all star back rower Tyler Ardron. Rookie centre Spencer Jones is probably the most exciting thing that has happened to Canada for a long time as is scrum half Ross Braude. However, we’re concerned by the lack of fullback Cooper Coats for Saturday’s match and still not convinced that fly half Peter Nelson is the way forward for Canada. It’s going to be a hard afternoon in Valparaiso for Canada make no mistake.

If Chile do beat Canada by 2 points on Saturday and thus knock us out of the running for that second Americas berth, then there is still the last chance saloon repechage tournament next November, but for a country that once was knocking at the door of the top ten in the 90s, it is a sad reflection of how far rugby has fallen in this country in the last 30 years.

We’ll be putting out a digest of the week on the podcast tomorrow, but till then stay safe and here’s hoping that Canada can give us reasons to be cheerful on Saturday!

Published by Neil Olsen

Passionate about rugby and trying to promote the global game in Canada and North America.

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