The 2022 edition of the Rugby Championship kicked off in Nelspruit with the first of 2 away matches for New Zealand in South Africa. The Kiwis came in at risk of dropping in the world rankings and with Ian Foster’s role as head coach being seriously questioned and it require a great tackle out wide from Jordie Barrett to stop Makazole Mapimpi going around the outside of him as the Boks looked to spread the ball wide. The home side were almost immediately back on the attack, and when Kurt-Lee Arendse put pressure on Beauden Barrett in the air under a Handré Pollard high ball, Lukhanyo Am was there to claim the loose ball and feed the Bulls wing for the early try. Though New Zealand were getting some possession they could not get out of their half, and when captain Sam Cane was pinged for going off his feet at the breakdown, Pollard kicked the 3 points to make it a 10-point lead with a quarter of the game gone. With Arendse challenging them in the air, the All Blacks were struggling to deal with the high ball, and when Siya Kolisi beat Akira Ioane to the net loose ball, South Africa quickly recycled and spread the ball wide, but Damian de Allende’s kick forward just refused to stay infield as Mapimpi tried to catch up to it, while a timely turnover from Ardie Savea under his own posts brought the next South African attack to an end. With just 4 minutes left in the opening half, Jordie Barrett got the All Blacks on the scoresheet with a penalty after Damian de Allende encroached into an offside position at a South Africa scrum—though rarely seen penalised, both back lines should stay at least 5m behind the hind foot until the ball is out—and this appeared to give the visitors some heart as they went on the attack, only for Malcolm Marx to bring it to a swift end with his second turnover of the match on his 50ᵗʰ Test cap, which saw his side go in at the break with a 10-3 lead.
The South African dominance continued after the break and saw Pollard kick another penalty with 30 minutes remaining. With Jordie Barrett struggling with a foot injury, Richie Mo’unga was brought on at fly half—with Beauden Barrett moving to 15—but it had little impact as South Africa continued to dominate, allowing Handré Pollard to kick a drop goal just before the hour. New Zealand finally saw themselves gifted with possession in the South African 22 with just over 15 minutes remaining after Arendse kicked out on the full when the ball had been played back into the 22, but the threat lasted just a couple of phases before replacement hooker Dane Coles knocked on. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, the South African defence continued to play as they had all night, and when Lukhanyo Am won a turnover penalty just inside the New Zealand half, Pollard kicked the penalty to open up a 16-point lead—a notable figure as a loss of 15 points or more would see the All Blacks drop to 5ᵗʰ in the World Rankings. An impressive game for Arendse was ruined by a late red card for taking out Beauden Barrett in the air with 5 minutes remaining—an incident that saw both players stay down for a number of minutes and Arendse eventually stretchered off. With just minutes left but a one-man advantage, Caleb Clarke made a break and was stopped just short by Damian Willemse, but bought time for his support, which allowed Shannon Frizell to go over in the corner, but some loose play as New Zealand went hunting for the bonus point on their next possession saw the All Blacks flanker fumble Sam Cane’s pass, and replacement Willie le Roux nipped in to score under the posts, Pollard kicking the conversion for a 26-10 victory.
On a recent article, I named Malcolm Marx as one of my top 5 hookers currently playing. Today was the perfect example of why.
While he was ultra-reliable at the set piece, he was also used as one of the primary carriers on first phase off the lineouts, and yet despite this meaning pretty much all of his carries were into an organised defence, he still managed to break the gain line with every single one of his carries, with one knock on in contact the only real blight on his 53-minute performance.
But where he really came alive was in defence, where he won 4 turnovers. The best openside flankers in the world would be happy with 4 turnovers in a Test match, this is coming from a hooker. He is so physically strong and in control of his body, while he has the nous to get himself in the right position as the tackle is made an the technique to get himself over the ball and latched on in a split-second.
Don’t ever be fooled by how often he starts on the bench, Marx is an elite player who should never be underestimated. This Man of the Match performance on his half-century was a timely reminder.
New faces, same result
The NZRU shockingly allowed Ian Foster to stay in his job following the series loss to Ireland, instead sacking his assistants. But this will surely have doomed Foster, even if he remains in the job for one more week with another Test against the Boks in South Africa next weekend.
The big worry for a while with New Zealand has been how there appears to be no plan in attack. Well the change in coaches certainly didn’t help there as the All Blacks looked worse than ever, creating just 1 attack of note, which was not even manufactured by the team, but simply a broken tackle late on and the individual skill of Caleb Clarke. Had the Boks nt scored that second try at the death, a 9-point difference would have been far too kind on the All Blacks and thoroughly undeserved.
Granted, the South African defence didn’t make things easy for New Zealand, with players regularly shooting out the line to make the man and ball tackle, but New zealand never looked like thy had an answer and continued to try and truck it up through the middle with their centres and forwards, who were too often being caught behind the gain line.
As a rugby fan, it is actually a real disappointment to see the All Blacks reduced to such a shambles. If Ian Foster survives this latest embarrassment, I begin to worry just how far this team can fall.