2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship got underway on Saturday as South Africa hosted Australia in Johannesburg. The Wallabies had a poor 2018 and would have been hoping to get some momentum ahead of the World Cup, however things have not started well with the Springboks taking a 14-10 halftime lead , before pulling away for a final score of 35-17, with tries from Lood de Jager, S’busiso Nkosi, Cobus Reinach and a brace from debuting scrum half Herschel Jantjies.
Carlsberg don’t do Test rugby debuts, but if they did they would probably be similar to that of Herschel Jantjies. The diminutive Stormers halfback appears to have pulled ahead of the other South African-based scrum halves following a strong Super Rugby campaign and backed that up with a great performance here. Helped by a pack that generally kept him on the front foot, he barely looked phased by being on the big stage and scored 2 good tries – running a good supporting line off Nkosi for his first and taking advantage of an undefended 5m channel for his second – while he could have had another in between, only to be stopped just short.
Go back a couple of seasons and South Africa seemed to be really missing a quality 9, but suddenly they are spoiled for choice with Faf de Klerk currently one of the best in the world and Cobus Reinach back in the national team after being arguably the best int he Premiership at his position this season. Coming off the bench, Reinach showed that he was also ready to play at Test level for the first time since 2015 by keeping the ball moving quickly and even managed to cross for a try of his own.
It may be that Rassie Erasmus was considering taking 3 scrum halves to Japan anyway, but on these performance he may just decide to do so in order to avoid a selection headache.
I can’t imagine things changing this close to the World Cup, but I can’t see Australia having too good of a record this year with Michael Cheika at the helm.
Taniela Tupou’s yellow card was clear as day. It came after the whistle was blown, there was no attempt to wrap his arms around Rynhard Elstadt, it’s questionable whether he came through the (oft ignored these days) gate to enter the breakdown and he clearly didn’t attempt to keep his feet while doing so. It was a brainless infringement – especially considering Australia had just won the scrum – and he can honestly consider himself lucky that he made contact with Elstadt’s chest rather than head or a red would have been a no-brainer. And yet Cheika still came out questioning the quality of referee Paul Williams instead of his team’s awful performance.
I’ve had questions over some of his selections in the back line for a while and this match proved no different, as the backs struggled to put anything together for much of the match. Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty had awful games and Tom Banks was barely involved as the midfield struggled to create anything for them. Things improved once Matt To’omua and Kurtley Beale came on, which I really think is down to Foley having a second playmaker on the pitch to help him break down the defence. Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani are both quality centres but did not work well together in this team. It will be interesting to see if Cheika pairs one of the two (in my opinion, Kerevi) with a second playmaker in the centre for their next match.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
While Herschel Jantjies was one of the clear winners here in terms of pushing for a space on the plane to Japan, he was not the only one. Francois Louw rolled back the years with a strong performance, while also giving a timely reminder that he can cover the number 8 position while Warren Whiteley tries to get himself fit in time for the tournament. Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto put in good performances but their impact was hampered by a tight 5 that struggled to gain parity with their opposite numbers. Coming off the bench, Frans Steyn reminded fans of his quality with a strong cameo, carrying the ball more than André Esterhuizen had and for double the metres, while he also appeared to get the back line looking more cohesive.
As if Steyn’s impressive cameo wasn’t bad enough for André Esterhuizen, his own performance was pretty poor, with a series of mistakes and minimal impact running the ball, while in defence he struggled to deal with Samu Kerevi. Warrick Gelant‘s kicking was poor and his running was often aimless and sideways. As I mentioned above, if I was adding a playmaker into the Australian centre, I would pair them with Kerevi, who brought his Super Rugby form into this match, whereas Tevita Kuridrani struggled to impact the game. Perhaps the most unfortunate though was substitute hooker Jordan Uelese, who is fighting to be backup to Folau Fainga’a but found himself coming off just minutes after his introduction due to a head injury. Hopefully he gets another chance in the coming matches.
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