The 7th edition of the annual Rugby Championship got underway this weekend and I doubt it will shock anyone to see New Zealand take an early lead in the tournament. The All Blacks may not be at their strongest but this is still a team that looks likely to finish the tournament undefeated. They played against an Australian team who handed debuts off the bench to Jermaine Astley and Jack Maddocks, while also welcoming back Premiership starts Tatafu Polota-Nau and Matt Toomua. Following a recent change in selection criteria, Saracens’ Juan Figallo was also back in action, playing for an Argentinian team entering a new era with Mario Ledesma at the helm, while Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux also continued their run in the South Africa team that started against England, joined once again by Bath’s Francois Louw.
Australia 13-38 New Zealand
Are Australia relying too much on the same players? I was thinking during the match that Bernard Foley has become an ever-present in this team recently and, with Quade Cooper out of the picture, I was struggling to pick who would be second choice behind him. Israel Folau is another player who is an ever-present when fit and I can’t help but wonder if the lack of variation in the playing squad could come back to haunt them come the World Cup, especially when you see New Zealand spreading appearances around a selection of players. It appears that my thoughts were timely as Folau limped off injured and it has since been announced that he will be missing he reverse at Eden Park.
So what are the options at 10 and 15? Well I think the most obvious options at 10 were the guys playing just outside Foley at the weekend: Kurtley Beale and Reece Hodge. Beale has the all-round skill-set to play at 10 but I think he thrives a bit further out at international level. Reece Hodge’s long-range kicking will always keep him in or around this starting line-up due to Foley’s limited range. With his versatility, he has become the Adam Ashley-Cooper of the team, playing wherever he is needed, but I think he and the Wallabies could benefit from him moving to the fly half position, where he has been playing regularly for Melbourne Rebels. He is strong enough to defend the 10 channel so would not have to be hidden on the wing in defence like Foley was on Saturday, while there would not be much of a drop in kicking percentages as he is solid off the tee with a larger range. Moving him to 10 would also allow Beale/Toomua to be partnered in midfield by Samu Kerevi/Tevita Kuridrani to give the balance of playmaking and strong running, while also allowing Cheika to continue picking specialist players in the back 3. At 15, the obvious choice would be Dane Haylett-Petty, who has deputised there during Folau’s previous absences, but Jack Maddocks looked good on his debut and Beale could again be a danger picking his lines from further back. There are plenty of options available and while I appreciate nobody wants to lose a Bledisloe Cup match, there are only a handful of matches remaining before the World Cup. Previous World Cups have seen teams suffer multiple injuries all at the same position – think back to Stephen Donald’s appearance on the bench in the 2011 final. I’m sure Michael Cheika would rather be able to turn to seasoned veterans than a bunch of rookies.
As much as I expect New Zealand to remain unbeaten, they looked anything but unbeatable at the weekend. Their lineout was turned over far too often and the number of handling errors was unbelievable. And yet they still won comfortably, scoring 6 tries in the process. The reason: they were clinical when the chances appeared. Their opener came from a simple missed tackle on Ben Smith, the next a turnover by Waisake Naholo that was spread to the far wing where there was space, the third a knock on by Dane Haylett-Petty that Beauden Barrett fly hacked on and controlled over the line. Even the next try, New Zealand took advantage of the space caused by Folau leaving the pitch injured while play was still going. Though they may not be as consistently great in attack as they were a few years back, they are solid in defence even when Ryan Crotty is unavailable and have the ability to cut apart a team when given the opportunity. This team look like they could be beaten, but whoever beats them will need to be switched on for every second of the 80 minutes and minimise the errors.
South Africa 34-21 Argentina
South Africa are back on the up! After a torrid couple of years under Allister Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus appears to be getting the team back on track just in time for the World Cup. England and Argentina, plus and understrength Wales, may not have been the sternest of tests, but the signs are good so far. It does not surprise me either that part of this turnaround includes starring roles from Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, both of whom have been revitalised playing in England. De Klerk has impressed me so much in recent internationals with his quick ball, eye for a gap (see his snipe to the line for South Africa’s last try) and his attacking box kicks that led to Aphiwe Dyantyi’s second try. Le Roux takes so much pressure off the fly half by becoming a second playmaker, he is dangerous collecting the high ball (though he failed to collect the bomb that led to Nicolas Sanchez’s try), targets the 13 channel and has a great range of passing and kicking – just look at his inch-perfect crosskick for Dyantyi’s opener. Similar to Australia though, they need to find some depth at key positions like fly half. Elton Jantjies has never convinced me when given the chance and I don’t feel he can be a long-term option. As such, it was good to see Damian Willemse come on for his debut at 10 with Pollard moved to 12 in order to support him. Japan 2019 may be a bit too soon for him to take the reins, but if he continues to get gametime in the competition then he could have a big impact on the biggest stage.
Though they may have conceded 6 tries, this performance from the Pumas was a far cry from the embarrassment of the Summer Tests. Despite being mainly the same players, this squad looked much more switched on and energised under Ledesma than in the final days of Daniel Hourcade’s reign. Nicolas Sanchez looked miles better than in the summer and the team looked dangerous after South Africa took an early lead. There is still a long way to go, as they were often caught out wide by the Springboks, but early signs are good for a team that appear close to welcoming back Europe-based stars like Facundo Isa and Juan Imhoff.