We may only be a third of the way through the tournament, but it would take a brave/foolish person to bet against New Zealand winning another title again. On the occasion of Owen Franks’ 100th Tests cap, the All Blacks romped away to a 40-12 victory over Australia to Ensure they keep hold of the Bledisloe Cup for another year, while Argentina got their first win under Mario Ledesma at home to South Africa.
New Zealand 40-12 Australia
Despite having considerably less registered players than England, South Africa and France (according to World Rugby’s latest data), the depth of the all Blacks has been incredible! Though they have been far from perfect, they have ran out comfortable victors both weeks against Australia. Even crazier is that they are doing this with Scott Barrett – probably their star player in the Summer Tests – back on the bench now that Brodie Retallick has returned. The loss of Ryan Crotty last week has not seemed to have an impact on the team as Jack Goodhue has been impressive at 13, while Ngani Laumape (who was not even in the original squad) had an increasing impact on the game as the match went on. Reiko Ioane was barely missed either, as Ben Smith moved to the win and Jordie Barrett deputised at fullback. Even crazier is that Richie Mo’unga, who has just led the Crusaders to back-to-back Super Rugby titles, has not even made the matchday 23 for either of the last 2 matches! Even with Julian Savea now out of the picture, stars like Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Lam are unable to make the 23 either! Even Dane Coles could struggle to get his place back in the starting XV once he is available, such has been the form of Codie Taylor – though a bit more reliability is needed currently in the lineout. I wrote last week about Australia possibly coming undone with a couple of injuries to key players; I can’t see this happening any time soon with New Zealand.
Looking at the Australia 23 on paper, that is a strong squad. Despite Israel Folau’s absence, there is plenty of skill and experience in a back line containing Will Genia, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beala Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete. In the forwards, Australia have 2 of the best jackals currently in rugby in the form of experienced duo Michael Hooper and David Pocock and a good blend of youth and experience. And yet for all this, they never looked to have a shot of winning once we got into the second half. They conceded 6 tries on the day but it could have been so much worse as Beauden Barrett had a try disallowed for a knock-on in the build-up, a forward pass from Laumape denied Waisake Naholo a late try and a wonderful last-ditch tackle from Foley put Jordie Barrett into touch just short of the line.
It just felt like there was something wrong with the system Australia were playing. 13 is such a difficult position to play defensively and Reece Hodge was caught out on a number of occasions in only his 2nd Test match in that position. Kurtley Beale also began struggling against Laumape in the second half. Yet despite this, Matt Toomua was kept on the bench until the 65th minute, by which point the game was over. Australia also butchered one of the biggest ovrlaps I’ve seen after winning the ball back on the New Zealand line in the left corner, hitting it up through the forwards for multiple phases when there had been 7 men free outside New Zealand’s widest defender Brodie Retallick. Something really needs changing ahead of the next round and I would suggest starting Toomua. The Leicester centre is a more physical player than Beale, and has a range of kicking and passing to be an effective playmaker in midfield. If Folau is still unavailable for the next game, Cheika could do much worse than moving Hodge to the wing in place of Jack Maddocks (who was largely anonymous in his first start) and bringing Toomua into the centre.
Argentina 32-19 South Africa
Argentina are back! They have looked so much better under Ledesma in the last 2 weeks than they did under Hourcade in the summer. Nicolas Sanchez looked a shadow of the player we know him to be against Wales and Scotland, but he ran things for the Pumas in this match and had a full house of try, conversion, penalty and drop goal by half time on the way to a personal tally of 17 points in this match. With Sanchez impressing, the back line are firing on all cylinders again, with them working overlaps for Ramiro Moyano’s try and both of Bautista Delguy’s. They are by no means perfect yet and were let off by South Africa on a number of occasions, but the signs of improvement are clear and by the World Cup they could be a real threat again.
After a number of improvements under Rassie Erasmus, this match was a real step back for the Springboks. They completed only 64% of their tackles as they were frequently caught out when Argentina spread the ball wide. In attack, they missed some great chances, with Lukhanyo Am’s forward pass denying Aphiwe Dyantyi a try, while I found myself yelling at the screen when Faf de Klerk looked for a runner to an empty blind side to the left of a ruck, only to have to go back to the open side as nobody else reacted to the opportunity. There were some wonderful moments in attack, often from de Klerk and Willie le Roux again, but they just weren’t accurate enough. Add to that Eben Etzebeth’s yellow card for cynically slowing down a breakdown on the South African line and they were always up against it against an Argentina side that seemed to grow in confidence following 2 quick tries. Handre Pollard appears to be the best option at 10, but his goal kicking has been unreliable so far this tournament and I would recommend giving de Klerk kicking duties and allowing Pollard to focus on the rest of the game. I would love to see Damian Willemse given some starts at 10 with Pollard outside him at 12, but considering Argentina would usually be considered the 2 easiest matches, I think this tournament will be more about establishing the best XV and then using the Autumn Internationals to give less experienced players a chance.