We reached the halfway point of this season’s Rugby Championship on Saturday (that’s a sad thought!) with a match between New Zealand and South Africa. The 2 teams will both be in Pool B at the World Cup, so while both teas were looking to test the depth of their squads in an attempt to pick the 31 men they take to Japan, both teams will have also wanted the psychological edge of a win over their rival.
In a match full of handling errors from the All Blacks, 2 South Africa penalties gave them an early lead, but a try for Jack Goodhue and Beauden Barrett’s conversion gave New Zealand a 7-6 lead at halftime. The game remained close throughout the second half and with the final play of the game Herschel Jantjies (on for much of the half following a failed HIA for Faf de Klerk) managed to collect a chip forward from Cheslin Kolbe to score out wide and Handrè Pollard slotted the conversion to secure a 16-16 tie. The All Blacks will more likely be concerned with the health of Brodie Retallick, however, as he suffered a dislocated shoulder that could put his World Cup in jeopardy.
Beauden Barrett had been the go-to fly half for New Zealand for a while now, but this match found him moved to fullback, while Richie Mo’unga took the 10 jersey. I really like this decision from Steve Hansen as I have been saying to my friends for a while that I would pick Mo’unga over Barrett as I find him a more reliable option, while moving Barrett to 15 keeps his playmaking ability on the park and arguably enhances it by giving him more space to work from, similar to what we were seeing with Damian McKenzie prior to his injury.
While Mo’unga had a shaky start with a couple of charged kicks, he grew into the game, while Barrett also had a strong game and got the assist for Goodhue’s try. What did surprise me though was the decision to give Barrett the kicking duties. Barrett has been the kicker for the All Backs on plenty of occasions so there is nothing new to learn there compared to Mo’unga. As it turns out, that decision arguably cost them the game as Barrett left 6 points on the field with 2 missed kicks that a top-level international kicker should be making, before being replaced off the tee by Mo’unga.
So often in the past, a team has needed to play the best match of their season and still require some luck to avoid losing in New Zealand. That was not the case here though, as South Africa put in a good workmanlike performance that I would describe as solid rather than spectacular.
With Faf de Klerk at the helm, they did a great job of keeping the All Blacks down their end of the pitch and putting them under pressure, with Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am doing a great job of stopping them making ground through the middle. Cheslin Kolbe is tiny by present international rugby standards but was anything but a pushover, completing 13 of his 15 attempted tackles – only Kwagga Smith (15/16) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (14/16) made more for the Springboks.
The set piece saw them largely keep parity with the number 1 team in the world, and watching the replacement props come on and immediately win a scrum penalty against New Zealand’s starting front row will have given the team a huge psychological boost with a crucial rematch in Japan just months away.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
If 2 tries on debut wasn’t good enough for Herschel Jantjies, he did not look like a player earning just his second cap against the All Blacks and scoring the crucial try at the death by beating opposite number Aaron Smith to the ball will have made it even sweeter. Off the back of these 2 performances it’s hard to imagine Rassie Erasmus not taking him to Japan. The starting pack for the Boks certainly looked like the first choice players minus injured captain Siya Kolisi, which seems to suggest that Kwagga Smith is being heavily considered for a spot in the squad. By being the team’s top tackler and also having some great moments on the ball and at the breakdown, he certainly didn’t do himself any harm. For the All Blacks, Shannon Frizell was given a shot in the number 6 shirt that currently seems up for grabs and certainly grew into the game, while one of his rivals for the place, Vaea Fifita, was probably given a better shot of making the squad by covering the second row position on the bench. Brodie Retallick’s hopes of making the plane depend on how quickly he can recover from his dislocated shoulder, while Scott Barrett is also currently missing through injury, which gives Fifita a great chance to prove himself as an option at lock to increase his chances of making it onto the plane.
The player whose World Cup hopes were hurt most (literally in this case) was arguably Brodie Retallick, who has suddenly gone from a definite starter to someone hoping he can recover in time to make it into the squad. Sonny Bill Williams is making his way back from injury and though he was involved in the try, he struggled to have any significant impact on the match and put his team on the front foot in the same way that Ngani Laumape has. Moving over to South Africa, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi both struggled at times in the lineout without providing as much as usual around the park, which could put them at risk if Schalk Brits can prove himself worthy of being first or second choice in the squad. Likewise, the success of Herschel Jantjies will put Cobus Reinach as risk if Rassie Erasmus decides to only take 2 scrum halves.
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