It will come as no surprise, but New Zealand have won the Rugby Championship for the 3rd consecutive time. Their 17-35 defeat of Argentina in Buenos Aires may not have been their best performance of the tournament, but it was a welcome bounce back after their loss to South Africa in the last round. Meanwhile, Australia – the only other team to have won the tournament in its 4-team format – find themselves bottom of the table with just one match left after a 23-12 loss in Port Elizabeth.
South Africa 23-12 Australia
He’s been scoring regularly in the tournament this year, but I’m still not sold on Aphiwe Dyantyi for the Springboks. The flyer from the Lions has scored 5 tries so far but I feel that quite a few of them have been down to being in the right place at the right time and benefitting from the players inside him – though I suppose that is a big part of playing on the wing. I often feel that away from the line he is too quick to put boot to ball rather than taking the contact and recycling, which has wasted a number of possessions for South Africa. Defensively as well he looks vulnerable. At the death against New Zealand, his flying out the line did enough to make Damian McKenzie knock on to end the game, but rushing out is not always the option. He did it so many times against Australia, a backline performing better (more on that soon) would have taken advantage of it and isolated him to break down his wing. He was also completely outjumped at a crosskick by Israel Folau close to the line and was lucky Australia couldn’t capitalise from it. He looks like he could be a great player and a dangerous asset for the Springboks in the coming years, but he still has work to do to reach his best.
The Australian back line is a mess! I’ve wrote previously how I think that finding another 10 to compete with Bernard Foley is a smart idea, but Kurtley Beale is not the answer as he needs more space to work his magic. As if that wasn’t bad enough, once the subsitutions started, players seemed to be moving everywhere! Foley came on but appeared to be in the centre with Folau, Toomua moved to fly half, Beale was at fullback, Hodge and Haylett-Petty covered the wings. I like how versatile all the players are, but that formation makes no sense at all! Too often in this tournament the Wallabies’ back line has looked fairly impotent and in this match it felt like any real danger to South Africa came from the back 3 returning kicks and other moments of broken play. I think they are missing the physical presence of Tevita Kuridrani or Samu Kerevi – who are both out injured – in the midfield. But injuries happen and Cheika does not appear to be able to find a formula that works in their absence.
Argentina 17-35 New Zealand
When most rugby fans my age or older think of Argentinian rugby, they probably remember the days of dominant packs pushing their opposition around the park. That is sadly no longer the case. The Pumas scrum was manhandled by the All Blacks and the lineout struggled at times, going 11/16, with captain Agustin Creevy struggling to hit his man at the top of his jump. In part, I would imagine they are struggling due players based away from Argentina not being available – most of these lads play for Los Jaguares, who will face strong packs but not necessarily international quality scrums – and also due to the move towards a more fluid, expansive game. I’m not blaming the Pumas’ exciting backline – it’s a joy to watch in full flight – but they need to go back to basics and shore up their set piece, otherwise the backs will never have a platform to allow them to reach their full potential. If they can do that… they will be a danger at the World Cup.
Sonny Bill Williams made his first appearance of the tournament yesterday, which just highlights the quality of options available to New Zealand. Through the tournament, Williams, Ryan Crotty, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown have all started in the centre positions. Not many other nations could boast even close to that strength in depth! While both Williams and Crotty played well in this match, I don’t think they provided the same quality of attacking ball that some of the other options have. My personal pick would be to have Laumape at 12, where his physical approach is hard to stop on the gain line, and Goodhue at 13, where he has played a crucial part in a number of breaks while also doing a solid job in defence, something that has been key to Crotty’s selection in the past. Off the bench I would then select Lienert-Brown, who does not always appear to have the best of impacts from the start, but fully takes advantage of gaps left by a tiring defence. With Laumape (25) the oldest of this trio (Williams is 33 and Crotty 30), if they become the main options in the centre now, they will be good enough to potentially win a third successive World Cup and then be reaching their best years as the All Blacks approach RWC2023, much in the way Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith grew together into arguable the best centre pairing of the last 10 years.