This year we’ve been treated to an enthralling Six Nations, a memorable series of Summer Tours and now the Rugby Championship looks set to provide us with another four weekends of thrilling entertainment! The first two rounds of the Southern Hemisphere’s annual dustup, have given us plenty to talk about, turned the form book on its head and best of all treated us to some spectacular rugby – and the party has only just got started.
The opening round saw South Africa seemingly sink another inevitable nail in the coffins of All Black Head Coach Ian Foster and Captain Sam Cane, but a week later New Zealand turned the tables upside down in one of the most spectacular All Black/Springbok tussles at the hallowed ground of Ellis Park that we can remember in recent memory. It means that New Zealand and South Africa sit in fourth and third respectively in the world rankings, with Ireland and France dominating the number one and two spots. Not something you often see at the start of the Rugby Championship.
Meanwhile in Argentina, a Wallaby side bereft of their inspirational Captain Michael Hooper, played their hearts out to honor him and took apart an Argentinian side still coming to terms with the emotions of playing at home for the first time in three years and a new Coach. But just as what transpired in South Africa, Argentina turned the tide in the most dramatic fashion a week later by blowing the Wallabies out of the water in no uncertain terms. Perhaps even more remarkable the South Americans now find themselves at the top of the Championship table after two rounds for the first time since joining the competition in 2012 – heady stuff indeed!
So here’s what got us talking after an exceptional two opening rounds of the Rugby Championship.
Trying to stay positive while holding the All Blacks seemingly Poisoned Chalice
The New Zealand Rugby Public are brutal – plain and simple! Whatever we may think about the efficacy of Ian Foster and Sam Cane in their respective roles, the public lynching they were subjected to while on tour in South Africa by the media and general public back home in New Zealand was, in our opinion, in rather poor taste to say the least. Add to that the bumbling indecision by and lack of support from their bosses the New Zealand Rugby Union, and the subsequent outstanding win by Foster and Cane’s charges in the Second Test at Ellis Park makes the indignity of it all that much harder to stomach. Cane and Foster were already under huge pressure as were their teammates. In short, they should have simply been allowed to get on with the task at hand without a raft of speculation ably assisted and fueled by the New Zealand Rugby Union as to whether or not either of them had a future after last Saturday’s match at Ellis Park – one of the toughest arenas on the planet to tour as a Test Rugby player.
In the week leading up to the match, the players to a man stood behind their leaders and that should have been good enough. Some solid work was done during the week leading up to the Test at Ellis Park, and with a combination of some simple fixes and errors in selection by the Springboks, New Zealand put in a performance for the ages that saw them get the better of their greatest rivals in a comprehensive manner. Whether or not you can attribute that to Foster or Cane, is a debate we could have till the cows come home. However, as we said in last week’s podcast, we simply couldn’t see the value of changing the Coach a year out from the World Cup, and as Captain, Cane silenced his critics by leading from the front and putting in arguably one of his most inspirational performances in the black jersey to date.
All Black management have conveniently ignored the problems that were creeping into the national setup since 2017 when Steve Hansen was still Coach, and to simply throw Foster under the bus now to atone for their own mismanagement seems cheap indeed. Foster may not be perfect and may not have been the best choice at the time, but his players clearly respect him as they do Sam Cane. With some tweaks to the Coaching setup, most notably in drafting in Jason Ryan as the forwards Coach and Joe Schmidt as the attack Coach from now until the World Cup, Foster will have the support he needs to build on the momentum of last weekend’s win at Ellis Park. It may still not fix all of the All Blacks current problems, but what they need now is less speculation and more focus on the task at hand – preparing for next year’s World Cup. When that’s done and dusted then it will be time to review their options but for now, let us see this sordid debate closed.
Are these the two most important men in the All Black squad?
There were some outstanding performances across the park last weekend in black jerseys, but two men in particular stood out and their influence in the coming months may well prove to be the key to how successful the All Blacks will be in restoring their ship onto a steady course.
Incumbent fly half Beauden Barrett may well be one of the greatest players the modern game has seen, but of late his style of play enables the individual talents of a highly skilled team to shine. However, as an organizer of the All Blacks’ collective strengths Richie Mo’unga, as evidenced on Saturday, is the master. It was that calm and disciplined foresight and organization that the All Blacks lacked in the first Test against the Springboks and in the series loss to Ireland. Do the results on Saturday, as we think they should, point to Mo’unga increasingly getting the nod as the All Blacks starter in the 10 jersey with Barrett becoming the impact player off the bench either at fly half or fullback? We can’t wait to see what the new Coaching brains trust of Foster, Ryan and Schmidt think of how to use these two hugely influential players most effectively.
One man who has consistently not let his side down so far this year, is back rower Ardie Savea. His work rate is simply off the charts, and with it he becomes a genuine inspiration to his teammates. Loyal as evidenced by his unwavering support under fire of Ian Foster and Sam Cane these past two weeks, and an absolute warrior for the cause on the pitch, the case for him playing a greater supporting role to Sam Cane’s Captaincy has never been greater. Furthermore, to take some of the pressure off Cane, awarding Savea the Captain’s armband from time to time as was done during Cane’s absence may be a tactic worth considering. Just watching Savea’s superhuman energy and total commitment, makes us want to get back on a rugby pitch it’s that inspirational. He simply embodies the definition of go forward ball for his team and as such, if New Zealand need a talisman for the challenging months ahead, they’d be hard pressed to find a more obvious candidate. Build some of your game plan around what Savea can create and you add a whole new level of danger to your forward pack.
The danger of not trusting your gut instincts
We said, in last week’s podcast previewing the showdown at Ellis Park, that Springbok Coach Jacques Nienaber had provided New Zealand with some opportunities to be exploited in his selection decisions. We weren’t proven wrong, as the All Blacks did exactly that. No matter how poor the All Blacks may or may not be at the moment, you always have to take two things into account. When their backs are against the wall they are one of the most committed rugby teams on the planet and secondly they still have the ability to reinvent themselves faster than almost any other Test Rugby team we can think of. All of those things happened at Ellis Park last Saturday, and when that happens that last thing you want to do is allow the All Blacks a fast start and an early lead. Well that also happened and chasing a game against the All Blacks is never something you really want to do even if it is in your own backyard.
There was almost a public outcry in South Africa when early in the week Nienaber named his squad for last Saturday’s match. Injury had forced him into selecting relative newcomer Joseph Dweba at Hooker in place of regular Bongi Mbonambi. However, what shocked everyone the most was Nienaber opting to have Dweba start in place of the first Test’s Man of the Match Malcolm Marx. Marx had been instrumental in ensuring that South Africa set the tone right from the get go in the set pieces that so unhinged the All Blacks in the First Test. In many ways it simply wasn’t fair to Dweba who was clearly out of his depth last Saturday and was having a torrid afternoon in the green jersey. After 35 minutes Marx came on in Dweba’s place, but by that stage it was a question of playing catchup against an increasingly confident All Black side. Marx did what was asked of him, but New Zealand had found the breathing room they needed to settle their own game plan.
There were other errors, in terms of Ox Nche also not really fronting up alongside Dweba and Jesse Kriel being put onto the wing when in reality he is at best an average center. Kriel was replaced relatively early on as just like Faf de Klerk, he fell victim to Caleb Clarke’s knees, which appear to be one of New Zealand’s new secret weapons. Lukhanyo Am shifted to the wing and showed that his truly extraordinary talents can be just as useful out wide as in the midfield as he put on a performance for the ages. You have to wonder though, had utility back Aphelele Fassi been selected instead of Kriel, allied to Am in the center, what extra magic might have been created? To be honest what more does Fassi need to do to impress Nienaber?
Is this the best player in the world right now?
In a match where New Zealand fixed their problems with the kick and chase along with their comfort and ability under the high ball, Springbok centre Lukhanyo Am didn’t quite have the field day he could have had, but his efforts to do so certainly left us and the rest of the rugby world in awe. He may have been part of a losing cause and a Springbok side suffering from poor selection choices, a touch of complacency and in some cases a lack of fitness compared to their opponents, but Am was truly magnificent. At times he came close to singlehandedly pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in recent Test Rugby history.
Imperious in the air, possessing a strength that seems three times his actual stature, and possessing an ability to read the game and create opportunities from nothing Am is a rugby phenomenon. What’s even more astounding is that he makes the impossible look almost effortless. While much of the world these days seems to only have eyes for France’s Antoine Dupont, we’d argue that Am is just as good if not better even though they have completely different roles for their respective teams. When the two sides face off in Marseille this November, we imagine the debate will have reached fever pitch.
Michael Cheika is clearly perfecting more than just the tango in his new role as Pumas Coach
We had this horrible sense of deja vu after watching the first Test between Argentina and Australia in the Rugby Championship, that this could end up being another tournament that faded into obscurity for the Pumas. Still something told us that we still should back the Pumas for a comeback in the Second Test.
In short, the Pumas did not disappoint and treated us to a seven score try fest that left us hungry for more. As their new Coach Michael Cheika said, it was tough for him to watch his charges demolish his former side so mercilessly, but he couldn’t have asked for a better start to life with Rugby’s “la vida loca”. Add organization and discipline to the Pumas heady skill sets and they will always be a team that is a joy to watch, and that is exactly what happened last weekend. Cheika may not always be the world’s most consistent Coach, but he does have a habit of churning out a year to eighteen months of solid performances. It would seem that his colorful leadership style blends well with his South American charges’ passion and high spirits. He may just be the tonic the Pumas need in their run up to the World Cup.
Australia had the edge in many of the game statistics, but Argentina were that much more organized and disciplined and made sure that the areas they did have the advantage in got translated into points on the board. Their kicking game was so much better than Australia’s and they controlled the zones where the ball was landing superbly. There was some clinical opportunism from the Pumas last Saturday, which in the past had often been scuppered by basic errors in execution, but in San Juan everyone seemed to have rehearsed their lines to a tee and knew exactly where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do when they got there. Santiago Carerras continued to develop as a world class fly half and playmaker for the Pumas while Australia simply failed to exercise any authority over the game from the ten jersey, often relying on scrum half Nic White to perform the role of both 9 and 10.
It was an outstanding team performance from Argentina, with all 23 players putting up their hands and being counted. It will stand them in good stead for a challenging tour to New Zealand, which could be a bridge too far, but given the recently exposed weaknesses in the All Blacks structure could also be a golden opportunity to create a bit of history.
Rennie puts a brave face on the loss of his inspirational Captain at the eleventh hour
As we said in the podcast, given the fact that player welfare is being so hotly debated these days, we were impressed by the support Michael Hooper received from the Australian Union, his Coach and his players when at the eleventh hour he left to return home for personal reasons, just ahead of Australia’s opening Test against Argentina. The importance of Hooper to the Wallaby setup cannot be underestimated, and without him they are not quite the same. However, both Coach Dave Rennie and the players stood by their leader’s decision and in the first Test to a man they played to honor their absent leader. It paid huge dividends as Australia romped to a comprehensive win even if it came at a cost in terms of increasing Australia’s already lengthy injury list, most notably fly half Quade Cooper being added to the casualty ward.
A week later though it was a different story. Australia perhaps took their foot off the gas after such an assured victory the week before, but if anything simply seemed unprepared for the passionate but highly clinical backlash from their Argentinian hosts that they must have known was coming. The mantra of playing for the absent Hooper also appeared to have lost some of its shine, and the Wallabies looked disjointed and unsure of themselves. Stand in Captain James Slipper played out of his skin as did number eight the increasingly impressive Rob Valetini, while Marika Koroibete ran at Argentina from every inch of the park for the full eighty minutes as well as tackling like a man possessed. However, without James O’Connor really owning the 10 jersey, game management increasingly fell to the overworked Nic White at scrum half. As a result Australia were simply unable to link phases together with any kind of cohesion or consistency. Argentina were suffering from no such problems.
With Quade Cooper out till probably just before the World Cup at worst, or the Autumn Internationals at best, and James O’Connor rusty since his injury spell post Super Rugby, Australia simply have to fast track Noah Lolesio as their starting number 10. It will be a huge ask for him against a Springbok side looking to make amends for the wobble at Ellis Park, but if he can get through the challenge, with the added advantage that Australia has not been a happy hunting ground for the Springboks in recent years, then all is not lost. Simply put, Australia have no choice. Get it right and the rest will come, as this is a well coached team with some excellent rugby skills but without a solid pivot at 10, their potential will remain elusive.
That’s it for now. We’ll hopefully be back ahead of Round 3 of the Rugby Championship, but if pressures of work don’t permit, feel free to have a listen to the weekly podcast wrap up on the TV listings page. Stay safe everyone and enjoy the rugby and what’s left of the summer!