Australia kicked off their 2022 Rugby Championship campaign with a trip to Mendoza to face off against Argentina. Now coached by former Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika, the Pumas came into the tournament off the back of a last gasp 2-1 series victory over Scotland, and they were soon ahead here as Santiago Carreras’ inside pass sent Pablo Matera over from close range. Australia were missing 2 of their stars in Michael Hooper—who had returned to Australia after not feeling in the right mindset to play—and the injured Samu Kerevi, but they welcomed back Quade Cooper, who soon got them on the scoresheet with a penalty. Emiliano Boffelli kicked 2 penalties of his own, but Australia chose to go to the corner with their next penalty, and after drawing in the defense with the initial maul, they spread the ball to create a gap for the looping Jordan Petaia to arc through, Cooper kicking the conversion. Boffelli soon added another 3 points, but Australia were growing into the game and looking dangerous, with their next attack taking them right to the Pumas’ try line, only for Cooper’s offload to hit the unsuspecting James Slipper in the face and fall into Argentina hands, allowing them to clear their lines. Though both teams tried, neither could create another chance of note before the break, though Boffelli ended the half by kicking a 4ᵗʰ penalty for a 19-10 lead.
It was the Australians who made the first attack of note after the break, Tom Wright and Jordan Petaia breaking down the right wing following an Argentine clearance, Wright ran out of space but his offload inside found debutant Jed Holloway, who was stopped just short and turned over. The Wallabies were soon back up to the line, but after failing to score in the initial phases, Quade Cooper tried to make something of a penalty advantage and ended up injuring his ankle, with Reece Hodge replacing him. Hodge’s first act was to kick to the corner with their penalty and the pack successfully mauled Fraser McReight—a late call-up to the 7 shirt following Hooper’s withdrawal—over for a try, which Hodge converted to cut the deficit to 2 points. The Pumas should have stretched the lead with a try of their own just minutes later, as Marcos Kremer was released by a inside pass, but his pass in the 22 was knocked on by the onrushing Carreras. Their next attack was much more successful though; countering a kick and spreading the ball to Matera, who carried with determination before feeding his fellow back row Juan Martín González to score in the corner, Boffelli nailing the kick from the touchline. That kick proved crucial, as a scrum penalty allowed the Wallabies to kick to the corner again, and while they couldn’t get over the line, it was adjudged that Matías Alemanno had illegally collapsed the maul, resulting in a yellow card for the lock and a penalty try for the visitors, who took the lead through a Hodge penalty just minutes later. The Argentine discipline of the first half was all-but gone and it was allowing the Wallabies to dominate, with their next kick to the corner seeing Folau Fainga’a peel off the maul and fight his way over. Back to 15 men, Argentina earned a much-needed penalty on halfway with 5 minutes left, only for Boffelli to push it too far to the right, and a last-gasp attack to earn a bonus point saw the ball go to floor and get turned over, Jake Gordon collected and his forward pass (clear to all on the replay but allowed to stand) allowed Hunter Paisami to draw the last defender and send Len Ikitau over for a final try, which Hodge converted for a 26-41 victory that will leave them top of the table after Round 1.
Back in the days when Argentina were establishing themselves as worthy of a spot in the Rugby Championship, they were known for their dominant pack. These days, they are probably more noticeable from the incredible talent they are producing in the back 3, so much so that Santiago Carreras can be moved to fly half and there are still more legitimate options for those positions than can fit in the squad.
However, far too often when watching the Pumas so far under Michael Cheika, the back 3 has been seriously underused in attack. This is a unit that contains genuine game-changers like Santiago Cordero and Bautista Delguy, and yet they are not being given the chance to get the ball in any space to attack the defence like we know they can, being limited to just kick counters. Even Boffelli on the wing was wasted in this game, with no attempts to put the ball high in the air for Boffelli (one of the best in the world at competing for the high ball) to go up for.
Granted the Pumas have some fantastic carriers in the back row, who they managed to release quite a few times with some clever inside passes, however when things looked to go wide, players continually got in each other’s way. Is this a matter of Carreras not being able to control his back line effectively? Or are the coaches struggling to impose a more expansive attacking plan in these early days?
Obviously any team is going to be hurt by the loss of Samu Kerevi, but I think this match shows just how important he is for the team.
With their star centre missing, Hunter Paisami shifted inside to 12 with Len Ikitau coming in at 13. Now Paisami is a quality centre, but is still at the earlier stage of his career where he is seen as a solid defender and a crash ball in attack, he has not yet developed that passing and kicking game that we see the best crash ball 12s (think Kerevi and Ma’a Nonu) develop, while Ikitau is still finding himself at international level as he finds himself in and out of the 23 depending on who is available.
And so without Kerevi, the midfield looked rather blunt, just carrying into a Pumas defence that was happy to tackle and jackal all day long. It’s notable that of Australia’s 5 tries, 3 were from driving mauls, 1 was a counterattack after a turnover and the only one that involved the back line running any real shape was first phase off a lineout in the Pumas 22, a situation where any team should be able to do something creative.
Kerevi and Paisami appear to have secured the top 2 centre spots. But when Kerevi is unavailable, is Ikitau the answer, or do they need to look at a more creative option?