The 2022 Rugby Championship reached it’s finale on Saturday with South Africa taking on Argentina in Durban. Following New Zealand’s victory over Australia at Eden Park, South Africa knew that in order to win the title they would need not just a bonus point victory, but also a winning marking of at least 40 points.
And after a close and physical start, the Boks got the ball down across the line following a 5 metre lineout, Eben Etzebeth getting over, however it was adjudged that Etzebeth had played the ball back to Siya Kolisi before taking the ball back off him from a position in front of him, so the try was disallowed. The Springboks were keeping ball in hand and putting pressure on with attack after attack, and after 15 minutes the pressure told as an accumulation of penalties saw Marcos Kremer sent to the bin, and the Springboks took advantage of the missing forward a few minutes later to drive a 5m scrum over the line, allowing Jasper Wiese to dot down as the first quarter came to an end. The South African pressure continued, as did the Argentinian penalties, and within moments of Kremer returning to the pitch, his fellow back row Juan Martín González was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul, and though the first chance the Boks had saw Willie le Roux held up over the line, the next saw skipper Kolisi peel off a rotating maul to crash over for try number 2, while the Pumas were dealt an extra blow by the loss of Pablo Matera to injury. After 30 minutes of almost constant defence, a strong driving maul from the Pumas allowed them to kick a penalty into the hosts’ 22, but their attack came to nothing as Joel Sclavi—on early after Eduardo Bello struggled in the scrums—ran a blatant blacking line just 5m out from the try line. As the second sin bin perod came to an end, South Africa’s decision to go only for tries came to a confusing end as Frans Steyn kicked a penalty from well inside his own half, and that decision was made to look even more questionable in the grand scheme of things as Gonzalo Bertranou sniped over from close range just before halftime following a clever kick to the corner from Santiago Carreras, which left the teams going in at the break with a 17-7 scoreline.
Having ended the first half on the front foot, the Pumas continued that pressure at the start of the second, with a brave tackle from Canan Moodie stopping Julián Montoya from scoring off a clever move at the front of the lineout, while their next attack was ended by Joel Scavi being penalised for rolling on the floor after contact. However they kept coming and after attacking down the blind side, a lovely step from Juan Martín González saw him wrong foot le Roux and go over in the corner, Boffelli’s conversion cutting the lead to just 3 points. The Boks surely knew that winning the tournament was out of reach by this point and that they should focus on winning the game, and the 54ᵗʰ minute saw a strong driving maul collapsed short of the line for a penalty try, with Jeronimo de la Fuente becoming the 3ʳᵈ Argentina player to receive a yellow card in the match. In deteriorating conditions, Eben Etzebeth was given a yellow card as a push while chasing a kick led to Emiliano Boffelli being contacted in the air. With the game now 14v14, the Pumas used the penalty to kick into the 22, but their driving maul was held up over the line, but another strong driving maul minutes later saw Faf de Klerk sent to the bin for collapsing it, and as de la Fuente returned to the pitch, the Pumas used their 2-man advantage to eventually send Matías Moroni over for the try, Boffelli’s conversion again making it a 3-point game with 11 minutes remaining. With Etzebeth returning, South Africa were back on the attack, and another strong lineout drive saw them earn a second penalty try of the game, with Sclavi making his way to the sin bin for the final minutes. with 5 minutes remaining and de Klerk back on the pitch, the hosts were able to add a sweetener to the victory by putting Kurt-Lee Arendse over with the final play of the game to put an extra shine on the scoreline, but the 38-21 victory was not enough to overturn New Zealand at the top of the table.
Why did South Africa go for goal just before half time? Granted Frans Steyn is an expert at kicking from range, but that is still a risky kick, and in this match the reward just didn’t make sense.
In a one-off match it would be understandable, as it sends a message to the opposition that any penalties around the halfway line could be 3 points, while with the score at 14-0 it made it a 3-score game. But this was not just any game, this was a match where the Boks needed to score 3 tries more than their opponent and win by a 40-point margin, so at 14-0, a penalty kick doesn’t really help much.
But it’s not as if South Africa were even really struggling. They had dominated the vast majority of the half and were winning penalties with most attacks, so even if the driving maul wasn’t working at 100% they should have still felt comfortable about kicking down into the Pumas 22 and putting together one more attack before halftime, which incidentally would have taken away the couple of minutes that the Pumas utilised to score their own try.
It may not seem like much at the one moment, but it highlights the importance of each decision, as what could have been a halftime lead of 21-0 (and maybe even another yellow card for the Pumas) ended up becoming a 17-7 lead. One could argue that this was the decision that lost them the Championship.
If you thought Australia’s discipline was poor, the Pumas said “Hold my beer” and put on a masterclass of how not to play defensively, with penalties coming with far too much frequency.
It’s something that we sadly see too often with the Pumas in recent years: if you play one-up rugby against them then their defensive line will dominate you, but if you look for the short passes around or in the contact—as South Africa were doing here, running hard and then offloading in contact—it puts the defence on the back foot and they are too slow to reorganise, leading to a number of cheap offside penalties and then stupid penalties at the breakdown as players try to slow the ball down to give the defence time to recover.
And then there were also the moronic penalties from Joel Sclavi. Brought on to sure up a struggling scrum, his dumb and wholly avoidable penalties ended 2 promising attacks for the Pumas 5m for the South African line, before he ended his game by collapsing a maul for the penalty try that eventually secured the game for South Africa.
Argentina have shown that on their day they can beat anyone. But if they want to start beating other top teams with regularity, which they will need to in order to win a tournament, then Michael Cheika desperately needs to work hard on preparing a defence that can stay organised and retreat with the same effectiveness as they do coming forward.