2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

2021 Autumn Tests: Players to Watch

Between the British & Irish Lions Tour and the Rugby Championship, we’ve been chock full of international rugby in recent months. But we’re far from over as the Southern Hemisphere teams come North for their end of season tours. And with the Rugby World Cup just 2 years away, it is now a crucial time for players to start proving themselves to secure a spot in their nation’s line-up and make themselves indispensable.

With that in mind, as I do for most of the major tournaments, I have looked at the majority of teams who you may find yourself watching over the next month and picked 1 player from each team who I think you should be keeping an eye on. Some will be youngsters trying to carry their club form onto a bigger stage, some will be fringe players trying to prove themselves, and some are players who you may not have heard much of unless you watch them frequently, but should really be paying attention to while they are on the pitch.

So let’s get started!

Argentina: Santiago Carreras

Carreras is one of the hot young outside backs on the scene for Argentina, an area where they have really been spoiled for choice in recent seasons. Capable of excelling at either wing or fullback, he’s reliable in the air and while he may not have the top-level speed of some of his fellow Gloucester wings (let’s be honest, few do!), he has the footwork to make up for it! He looked on the cusp of being one of the next stars at the position, if only Argentina could improve things further infield. However, things have got even more interesting following a Rugby Championship campaign that saw him start at fly half for the final couple of matches, despite never starting at the position in a top flight club match. Will he continue at the position or will he be moved back to the outside positions where I feel he is at his best? Only time will tell.

Australia: Hunter Paisami

What a couple of seasons for Paisami. The young Reds centre’s physicality and impressive defence saw him called up to the Wallabies squad as part of their rebuild and was looking pretty secure until he missed the majority of the Rugby Championship for the arrival of his first child, which coincided with the return of Samu Kerevi from the international exile. Well with Kerevi missing, Paisami is back in against July and while Kerevi’s presence may hinder his first team chances (with the quality available, I can’t imagine that Dave Rennie will frequently start with 2 physical centres) he still has the chance this Autumn to secure his spot in the wider squad.

England: Alex Dombrandt

I could have so easily gone for British & Irish Lions Sam Simmonds or Marcus Smith here as they finally find themselves getting picked by Eddie Jones, but I have instead gone for Dombrandt. While Simmonds is a quality 8, Eddie Jones has shown a preference for larger men at 8, so the young Harlequin could find himself at the head of the queue with Billy Vunipola finally left out. Despite being a big boy, Dombrandt has a turn of pace that will prove dangerous when put through a gap, but is more than just a carrier, as he also contributes more than a few turnovers at club level.

Fiji: Levani Botia

So now we come to a player who is firmly established in his nation’s XV, but due to the sheer quality of players around him at Test level he arguably doesn’t get the wider recognition he deserves. At 32, the La Rochelle centre is a veteran of the game and a physical specimen, happy to carry hard but even happier to tackle even harder. But what makes Botia very interesting is his versatility. While usually a 12, he is equally at home at 7 for both club and country, and has the ability to turn the ball over as good as any international 7. With the Fijian squad for these Tests only selecting from the Northern Hemisphere and missing injured players like Semi Radradra, expect Botia to come to the fore and lead by example.

France: Jonathan Danty

It’s crazy to believe that the Stade Français centre only has 8 caps to his name, but that just goes to show the quality available to France, while there was also a move towards youth following the last World Cup that saw him overlooked. However, he took his chance on his 2 appearances in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup that saw France test their depth and earned another 2 caps in their summer Tests against Australia as part of a weakened French team. While he may not be part of the first choice XV, he provides a physical carrying option at 12 and seems to impress whenever given a chance. If he can continue to put in similar consistent performances, he may just be able to secure himself a spot in the home World Cup.

Georgia: Giorgi Kveseladze

Georgia may be better known for their forwards but they are developing an impressive young backline and Kveseladze is a key part of that. You may remember him from his impressive solo try against Ireland in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, but what has been really impressive is his defensive quality at 13, which will have only been helped by moving to Gloucester and training alongside Chris Harris. While his appearances at Kingsholm have been limited so far, most of the Lelos back line still play in Georgia, with Kveseladze one of only 5 backs at a top flight club (the other 4 all being based in France, while there is also 1 player in the Pro D2) and that constant experience in an elite professional setup will be vital for the team.

Ireland: Simon Zebo

He’s back! After returning from France, Simon Zebo is back in the Ireland squad a the first opportunity following his return to Munster. Capable of playing wing or fullback, Zebo still has a great turn of pace despite being 31 now, but has the experience to go with it, and has started the season strongly at Thomond Park. Ireland are chock full of talent in the back 3, but I can’t help feel that Zebo still has that special something to secure a spot in the starting XV by the start of the 2022 Six Nations.

Italy: Marco Riccioni

I remember as I was getting into rugby, Italy’s strength was it’s pack, including a front row that could dominate the scrum. Well Italy have quality throughout the squad now but need to start getting that fearsome pack back, and Riccioni could be a key part of that. The tighthead has been a part of the national team for a few years now and at 23 should be ready to take a step forward in his career and start becoming a veteran. But he is certainly going about it in the right way, having left a Benetton team that has never been this successful to join Saracens on their return to the Premiership. This is exactly the kind of move that Italy needs with just 2 top-flight club teams, and will hopefully lead to success both for Riccione and the Azzurri.

Japan: Tevita Tatafu

While I still feel that Kazuki Himeno doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, I have instead looked at his fellow back row Tatafu. Back row has been a position of strength for the Brave Blossoms for a while now, but Tatafu broke onto the scene in style with barnstorming performances against both the British & Irish Lions and Ireland over the summer, earning just his 4ᵗʰ and 5ᵗʰ caps 5 years after he earned his first 3 in the Asia Rugby Championship. Japan can sometimes look a little too lightweight in attack, but Tatafu’s carrying will be crucial in helping create a strong attacking platform against even the best international defences.

New Zealand: Akira Ioane

As great as the All Blacks are, they’ve struggled to find a true successor to Jerome Kaino in the 6 shirt. However they may finally have done to with the rise of Akira Ioane. It may have taken him a little longer that his younger brother Reiko to secure a spot in the All Blacks 23, but he has all the traits to excel in the team, with enough pace to hold his own on the 7s circuit and the power to be a true enforcer in the pack. Keep an eye out for him in wide positions on attack, where he will create matchup nightmares, being able to break away if given space or dominate contact against smaller wingers, while using his great handling skills to keep the attack going.

Scotland: Matt Scott

So if we’re all being honest, Chris Harris has become one of the best 13s in the world and has that spot secured. However the situation at 12 is much more open, and that gives Matt Scott a chance. Injuries have hampered his career, but he has always impressed when able to put a run of games together. Currently part of a Leicester Tigers team that has turned things around after a dismal spell, Scott is a great all-round talent, but what really stands out watching him play is the clever lines that he runs to burst through a hole and catch a defence flat-footed. If he can stay fit, he can really put his hand up for the 12 shirt.

South Africa: Damian Willemse

With Morné Steyn calling an end to his international career, the Springboks have decided to stick with just 2 specialist fly halves in their squad. The reason? Damian Willemse. Willemse is becoming something of the new utility back of world rugby, with a set of skills that allows him to play throughout the back line. Truly, this may be holding Willemse back, as he has struggled to excel at any position. However, if he can be given a run in a position, he could really start to excel, especially with the way that the Springboks use their fullback as a second playmaker. After a heavy fixture list this summer, don’t be shocked if the Boks start varying their back line a bit more in these Tests, and let’s see where Willemse fits in the plan.

Tonga: Hosea Saumaki

Probably a new name to most of you, and I must admit that even I know very little about Saumaki, but what I know has me excited. The wing recently moved to Leicester Tigers but has spent most of his career in Japan, where he has known how to make it over the try line, scoring 10 tries in 13 appearances for Canon Eagles in his debut season in the Top League. With the international retirement of Siale Piutau, there is very little experience (especially at an elite level) outside of fly half, so despite only having 3 caps to his name, Saumaki will need to step up and become a leader, while if he and fullback Telusa Veainu can both find space, they could be dangerous out wide!

Uruguay: Santiago Arata

One of the players who truly stood out to me during Uruguay’s RWC2019 campaign was young scrum half Santiago Arata. Arata looked a really exciting talent back then, and has since started to earn professional experience, first with the Huston Sabercats in the MLR and now in the Top 14 with Castres. If he can learn from a player of Rory Kockott’s quality, that will be huge for Los Teros, who still have most of their players playing in Uruguay for Peñarol Rugby in the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s answer to the MLR.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

In the build-up to RWC2019, Gareth Anscombe looked to have secured the number 10 jersey ahead of Dan Biggar, only for a knee injury to completely derail his career as it was reaching new heights. Well the new season also brought a return to rugby for the Ospreys outside half, and he has picked up where he left off at club level. With the English-based players unavailable for the match against the All Blacks as it falls outside the Test window, will Anscombe be straight back into the Test arena? And will a good performance keep him in the 23, as Callum Sheedy has not had a promising start to the season with Bristol. Anscombe feels a better fit for Wane Pivac’s more expansive Wales team, so Anscombe’s return to Test rugby and the fight for the 10 shirt is worth keeping both eyes on.

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

We are now 1 week on from the end of the 2021 Rugby Championship. A tournament that saw World Champions South Africa go on a 3-match losing streak while Australia welcomed back some of their exiles to go on a 4-match wining streak. Meanwhile New Zealand tied up the tournament in 5 weeks and went top of the world rankings, only for a last-gasp loss to South Africa in the tournament finale to give the top spot in the rankings back to the Springboks.

So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Tournament. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Rugby Championship is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: He may be one of the best looseheads in the world, but the Stormers prop found himself largely on the bench in this tournament. However, the Springboks use their bench very differently, and Kitshoff became a key part of the “Bomb Squad” that would come on to help turn matches. An expert scrummager who pulls his weight in open play, Kitshoff was key to helping keep the Boks competitive.

2) Malcolm Marx: Codie Taylor came close to taking this spot but was harmed by the chopping and changing of the squad, while Julián Montoya was solid but unspectacular in a struggling Pumas team. So we look to South Africa, and again it’s the game-changing talent of the “Bomb Squad” that makes the list. Marx play like an extra back row and his work in the loose is crucial when the Boks play a more open game, while he finished the tournament with 3 tries—the most of any forward.

3) Taniela Tupou: If I could create an ultimate team using any player in the world, Tupou would be my pick at 3. The “Tongan Thor” is an absolute unit and tough to contend with at the scrum. But it is in open play where he really comes into his own, with a good turn of pace but an incredible engine that can see him still going late into a Test match, while his handling skills have him at risk of being expelled from the front row union.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Lood de Jager: Is it any real surprise how many of the South African pack are making the list considering how much reliance the Springboks had on them. Even in the poorer performances the tight five still held their own, while these two behemoths in the second row played a huge role in the defensive effort, creating a physical platform in attack and dominating at both theirs and their opponent’s lineouts.

6) Akira Ioane: Three and a half years ago I picked Ioane in my Uncapped XV. While he then dropped away for a few years, he is now living up to his potential and looks like the best option the All Blacks have had at 6 since Jerome Kaino. A great enforcer in defence, Ioane also has the pace (he spent time on the 7s circuit) and power to be a dangerous carrying threat in wide positions. If he can carry this on for a few more seasons, he could be coming into consideration as one of the best blindsides in the world.

7) Michael Hooper: It’s so hard to leave out Siya Kolisi, but Hooper gets the nod here. While both give 100% in every game and lead their teams with distinction, Hooper has been doing so in a team going through a a rebuild, while he also always appears to be in just the right place to make a crucial impact on the game.

8) Ardie Savea: Rob Valentini certainly grew into the role as the tournament went on and Duane Vermeulen had some great moments coming back from injury, but Ardie Savea was the most consistent. A 7 initially with the physicality and skillset that allows him to play across the entire back row, Savea has the physicality and carrying ability to help put the All Blacks on the front foot in attack and take advantage of any gaps that he is put through, while he also dealt admirably with the etra pressure of being named captain in Sam Cane’s absence.

9) Tate McDermott: He may have lost his starting spot to Nic White as the tournament went on, but McDermott remains one of the brightest lights on the world stage at scrum half. He has the eye for a gap and the pace and footwork to exploit it, keeping defences honest, while he also made a crucial intervention to deny Lukhanyo Am a try. He only turned 23 during this tournament so his best years are still ahead of him, which will only be heightened by the improving performances from his team around him.

10) Quade Cooper: Beauden Barett’s haplessness against the dominance of South Africa harmed his chances, but in truth Cooper would likely have taken this spot anyway. Coming back from such a long international exile, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat at this level and helped turn the team around by taking control of the team, finishing the tournament with the 3ʳᵈ-highest points tally despite not featuring in the first 2 rounds.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: He made my Team of the Lions Series earlier this summer and keeps his place in this team after another solid tournament. I can’t help feel sorry for Mapimpi, who is one of the best wings in the game currently. A proven try scorer, Mapimpi”s chances are so limited in a South African team that barely spreads the ball, but he willingly goes about his business in defence and the kicking game, while taking his chances when given them.

12) Samu Kerevi: Special mention to David Havili, who has done a great job of transitioning from back 3 to 12 and quickly excelling at international level, but Kerevi was the obvious pick here. Another of Australia’s returning exiles, Kerevi’s impact on the team has been monumental. He’s provided a regular and reliable option to put the Wallabies on the front foot, and this has also allowed the players around him the space to play their very best game. If he can continue in the same vein during the Autumn Tests, he has a great chance to push for World Player of the Year.

13) Lukhanyo Am: A missed try in the first Test against Australia proved costly, but Am had another great tournament. The Springbok remains probably the best defensive 13 in world rugby and continues to thrive in this team especially when they are able to control the speed of the game. Len Ikitau is unfortunate to miss out, but Am’s experience on the big stage shone through when it was needed.

14) Andrew Kellaway: How could Kellaway not make this team after finishing with a whopping 7 tries—4 more than his closest competitor! In his first season of Test rugby, he has shown that he knows how to get to the try line, with a brace in his first match against the All Blacks, but the improvement in the Wallabies performances has just given him even more chances which he has taken with aplomb!

15) Jordie Barrett: The clear choice here at 15, Barrett’s range of skills makes him a brilliant option at 15 (or anywhere in the back line), while his goal kicking has been op notch as he has been allowed to become the number one kicker, allowing him to nail some clutch kicks. As I said a few weeks back, this is the brother that I pick for my team, not Beauden.

 

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v New Zealand

And so we reached the end, 80 days after the 2021 Rugby Championship began, we reached the final match in Perth’s 4 double-headers. And what a match it would finish on, as World Champions South Africa took on World number 1 (and 2021 Rugby Championship winners) New Zealand.

The South Africans were looking to halt a 3-mach losing streak and took an early lead with a try for Damian de Allende. New Zealand had turned the ball over just inside their 22 and looked to spread it wide, only for Codie Taylor to fumble a pass above his head. Lukhanyo Am retrieved the loose ball and a clever behind-the-back pass to S’busiso Nkosi allowed the winger to put the Munster centre over in the corner. As a crazy start to the game continued, Jordie Barrett and Handré Pollard traded penalties, before Beauden Barrett’s chipped cross-kick found Sevu Reece in space, and the winger managed to stretch through Duane Vermeulen’s tackle to dot down in the corner. As the first quarter came to a close, the Boks thought they had scored again as they stole a New Zealand lineout in the Kiwis’ 22 and Bongi Mbonambi went on a one-man rampage, only for the hooker to go down just short of the line, though Pollard did add 3 points from the tee soon after. The All Blacks were looking to manage a clean sweep in the tournament however, and started to dominate as the half went on, and when Beauden Barrett slipped through a gap in the World Champions’ defence, Reiko Ioane was in support to keep the attack going and put captain Ardie Savea over for the try. The All Blacks came close again just after the half hour mark as Jordie Barrett ran back a kick and scythed through a poor kick chase to make it up to the 22, before spreading the ball wide to Anton Lienert-Brown, who was stopped just short as Nkosi bundled him into touch just short of the line with a fine try-saver. However the resulting South African lineout was spoiled by Scott Barrett, and when the loose ball bounced into Brad Weber’s hands, the Chiefs’ scrum half was able to dive over before anyone could react. The match was getting dangerously close to getting out of Springbok hands, but a complete change of the front row on 38 minutes gave the Springboks a boost and a late penalty from Pollard allowed them to go in at the break with just a 6-point deficit.

Coming out after the break, it was a very different game, as the Boks made more changes both at half time and in the early minutes of the half, while another penalty from the boot of Handré Pollard cut the All Black’s lead to 3. But then, around the 50 minute mark, came the crucial moment. Frans Steyn—brought on at halftime to replace Willie Le Roux—successfully kicked a 50:22 that gave the Boks a lineout just 10 metres from the New Zealand line, and after Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff charged in with crash ball in the middle of the pitch, the ball was spread out to Elton Jantjies, who drew Patrick Tuipulotu and fed Makazole Mapimpi for the go-ahead score. Pollard missed the conversion from the touchline, and relinquished kicking duties to Jantjies, who soon extended their lead to 5 points with a penalty, before Jordie Barrett cut the lead back to 2 with a kick of his own. As the game approached the final 5 minutes, what had turned into a titanic battle hung on a knife-edge, and the Kiwis re-took the lead as Frans Steyn was penalised for not rolling following a huge hit on Daman McKenzie, though replays showed that the hit was so big, the ball jarred loose in the tackle and shifted from McKenzie to Steyn before they reached the ground, so it should have been the All Black who had to roll away. This sparked a spate of lead changes, as Elton Jantjies kicked a drop goal, only for Barrett to kick another penalty after Mostert was pinged for not releasing. And then with just a minute left, it looked like the Boks had made a crucial error, as their restart did not go 10 metres. The All Blacks successfully retained possession, and it looked like they would be able to see out the final minute by keeping the ball tight, until Asafo Aumua was pinged for sealing off with just seconds remaining. Despite the tight angle, Steyn successfully kicked the Boks into the New Zealand 22, and when the All Blacks were caught offside just a couple of phases later, Elton Jantjies was left with the simplest of penalties to kick, giving South Africa a 31-29 victory.

What this match really showed was just how much impact the speed of the game will have on the way the Springboks play. It’s become clear to see that the Boks try to slow the game down, with as many stoppages as possible, which allows their behemoths time to recover slightly and then go all-out further into the game, almost like a game of American Football. However, when they are unable to slow down the game, they get in trouble.

In the first half, the All Blacks looked to keep the game going, with quick-tap penalties and quick lineouts, while also making sure they got into place for set pieces as quick as they could. This led to a half with limited stoppages, which started as a close affair but turned in the Kiwis’ favour as the half went on, as the Springboks started flagging from not having the opportunity to recover between play.

In the second half, though, the All Blacks began to let the Boks dictate the speed of the game, and the amount and length of stoppages skyrocketed. And with that, the game turned in South Africa’s favour, as the big boys were able to go hard for a couple of minutes, have a rest, then go again all throughout the half, rather than tiring out as it went on. This allowed the Boks to defend more stoutly and aggressively, which stopped the All Blacks from creating any chances of note in the second period, while in attack, the Boks were able to start dominating and forcing the All Blacks into repeated penalties.

While it’s a highly effective tactic, it makes the game long and dull, and is not going to attract new fans. If we’re going to look at speeding up the game, then these stalling tactics need to be looked at. To make clear, I would be saying this regardless of what team it is, this is nothing to do with piling on another nation. Hopefully after a disastrously dull Lions Tour and now their performances in this tournament, World Rugby will look at how this is going against their attempts to speedup the game and look for a way to combat this.

In doing so, it allowed all of the Springboks to go all-out from first minute to last, which was obviously then helped by the slowing down of the game in the second half. The Boks were able to go hard against the All Blacks, who had no answer for their physicality.

The All Blacks have shown in recent years that they are vulnerable if you can put heavy pressure on them at the breakdown and get in their faces, by making the changes at the times the Springboks did, they were able to throw the All Blacks completely off their game. Don’t be shocked to see some of the nations with deeper squads trying to replicate this in their upcoming Autumn Tests.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

80 days on from the beginning of the tournament, the 2021 Rugby Championship reached its final day, which would see a fourth and final double header. First up on the final day was Australia’s chance to secure 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings with an “away” match against winless Argentina.

After both Quade Cooper and Emiliano Boffelli missed early penalty attempts in the opening minutes, it was Cooper who opened the scoring off the tee following a scrum offence, while Santiago Carreras’ attempted drop goal from halfway following an Australian goal-line drop-out sailed just wide. In a tight first half, the Wallabies finally found a breakthrough as the half hour approached, after a series of infringements at the lineout saw Tomás Lavanini sent to the sin bin, making him the most-carded player in the history of Test rugby. Though the Pumas sacked the resulting Australian lineout, the Wallabies successfully set up a new maul, which successfully escorted Folau Fainga’a to the line for the opening try. With Lavanini still in the bin, the Wallabies struck again at a lineout, setting the maul, but with Hooper peeling off at the back and feeding a looping Fainga’a. After drawing the defence, the hooker sent Rob Valentini through on a crash ball, and the back row duly released Andrew Kellaway to extend the lead. As the half came to an end and Lavanini returned to the pitch, Emilia Boffelli finally got the South Americans on the scoreboard with a penalty following a series of offences by the Australians 5 metres out from their line, cutting the hosts’ lead at the break to 3-15.

If it felt like a mistake to settle for 3 points at the end of the first half, it looked even worse just minutes into the second period, as Samu Kerevi and Andrew Kellaway came around the corner at the last minte to create a numbers advantage, and a double pump from Cooper created the gap for Kerevi to go over. 10 minutes later, another series of phases in the Pumas 22 ended in a try as Kellaway successfully dummied Matías Moroni and broke through the tackle of Santiago Chocobares to go over for his second try. Just minutes later, Australia used the same lineout move that proved so successful earlier in the match, but as the Pumas defence tightened up to protect against the crash ball, Fainga’a instead spread the ball to the backs, and when Len Ikitau attacked a massive gap out wide, he drew the defence and flicked the ball onto Kellaway to complete his hat-trick. With the game out of sight, the game opened up more going into the final quarter as the replacements came on, and when the Pumas finally made it back into the Australian 22 for the first time of note since the first half, replacement loosehead Thomas Gallo forced himself over for a try on his debut. Argentina were finishing on a high, and when they found themselves 5m out from the Wallabies line, Chocobares sniped off the back of a ruck but was stopped just short, only to transfer the ball to Gallo, who forced his way over to dot down for a second try, which gave the score a much more respectable look. As the match came to an end, Australian captain Michael Hooper was sent to the bin for killing the ball following a break from Julián Montoya, but after the Pumas went to the corner, the Wallabies successfully held out the maul to complete a 17-32 victory.

Julián Montoya is a fantastic hooker and a great all-round player. However, as captain of the Pumas, I think that he made a costly mistake today. This came in the final moments of the first half. At 0-15 down and with Lavanini having just returned to the pitch following his yellow card, the Pumas were camped on the Wallabies’ 5m line. The wallabies had given away 4 penalties in succession for a range of offences and arguably should have had a man in the bin as a no-arms tackle from Taniela Tupou on Gonzalo Bertranou went unpunished, but were just being put on a warning.

At this point, Montoya chose to take the easy 3 points to guarantee they were off the mark, but for me there was only one real option here: continue pushing for the line, either with another lineout or a tap-and-go penalty. This was the first time that they had been in any position to threaten the try line in the entire game, and (barring any unforced errors) should have resulted in either a try for the Pumas or a yellow card for one of the Australians at the next penalty (or possibly both).

However by going for the posts, Argentina let the Wallabies off the hook. They didn’t get back into the Australian 22 for 20 minutes, by which point the warning was long gone and Australia had scored 3 more tries to run away with the game. While I still feel like the Wallabies would have gone on to win the game, I think that a different decision here by Montoya could have led to a closer game.

Australia are in a historic spot. Having started the tournament with 2 bad defeats to the All Blacks, the Wallabies won 4 consecutive matches in the tournament for the first time ever on their way to finishing 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament standings and climbing to 3ʳᵈ in the World rankings.

While they are certainly on the up and have developed so much more depth by bringing through the kids over the last couple of seasons and now bringing back a number of veterans from abroad, fans should not get carried away just yet. While they have largely dominated the games against Argentina, they have never fully killed the game off, and that let the Pumas back in to some degree in both matches. Against a better team, these lapses in control could have proved critical.

Australia are on the up, but they are not the 3ʳᵈ best team in the world, they are instead there through the weakness of weekly updates to the World rankings, which will see winning teams leapfrog teams that are not playing due to the way the global calendar is set out (expect to see a couple of the Six Nations teams rise up the rankings in the spring).

The key for the Wallabies now is to build on this in their Autumn Tests against Japan, Scotland, England and Wales, continuing the strong performances, getting as many wins as they can (I think 3 is realistic, potentially 4 depending which England turns up) and hopefully changing the team up a little to avoid a reliance on one or two stars. If the Wallabies can do this, that is when it is time to start getting excited.

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

With the 100ᵗʰ Test match between South Africa and New Zealand out of the way, it was time for the hosts Australia to take on an Argentina team that had been left out of a midweek photo session for the tournament. After such a close match in the opener of this double-header, it was always going to be a tough affair to live up to, and sadly for all but the home fans, this was not going to be anywhere near as close a match.

The Pumas have struggled throughout the tournament but had the chance to take an early lead, only for Emiliano Boffelli to curl an eminently kickable penalty wide. The Pumas were quickly made to rue this missed chance, as a break from Samu Kerevi brought the hosts up into the Argentina 22, and as the ball was spread wide, Reece Hodge slipped out of Lucio Cinti’s tackle to go over for the opening try. Australia were quickly taking control of this game, and when Len Ikitau was stopped just short of the try line after winning the race to a Quade Cooper grubber, Kerevi was able to pick and go off the base of the ruck and force his way over beneath the posts. The Pumas finally got on the board with a Boffelli penalty as Rob Valentini was caught obstructing the chase at the restart, but the Wallabies were still clearly in control and thought they had a third try on the half hour as Nic White sniped off the back of a ruck and dive for the line, only to ground the ball against the base of the post short of the line (something that was previously a try but no longer) and lose control forwards, however the Wallabies had a penalty advantage and Cooper kicked the 3 points for a 17-3 halftime lead.

The Pumas came out firing after the break, and after a penalty allowed them to kick to the corner, the pack drove captain Julián Montoya over for a crucial try, however Boffelli missed the conversion from out wide and a penalty that followed son after. The strong start to the half was soon hurt by indiscipline though, and what should have been a penalty for the Pumas was reversed as Marcos Kremer tripped Reece Hodge during advantage, resulting in the flanker being sent to the bin. With the man advantage, Australia made their way downfield to the Argentina line, but were forced to settle for a James O’Connor penalty after Pablo Matera killed the ball. However, Australia secured the win with just over ten minutes left as James O’Connor received the ball 5m out, took a step to his right before popping the ball back inside to his left for Andrew Kellaway to go over, and though the final pass looked forwards, none of the officials felt that there was any need to check, allowing the replacement fly half to kick the Wallabies into a 27-8 lead that they would hold until the final whistle.

At 24 years old and comfortable at both lock or flanker, Marcos Kremer is a fantastic player on his day; a great enforcer who will carry, tackle and cause problems at the breakdown all day long. However, on a bad day, he is more than a little reminiscent of his fellow lock Tomás Lavanini, with a lack of discipline that too often proved costly.

In the second half of this match, the Pumas were beginning to get stronger. They had a try and were within 9 points of the Wallabies, despite Boffelli having left 8 points on the field with missed kicks, and were putting pressure on the hosts to win penalties. Unfortunately, twice in the space of 5 minutes, a penalty in the Australian half was reversed due to an offence by Kremer, the first as he shoulder charged Marika Koroibete after the whistle, the second his trip on Reece Hodge that saw him sent to the bin. Now with the second incident, I think there are certainly questions about why Matthew Carley took so long to blow the whistle when it was clear that no advantage was coming, but the point is that Kremer so frequently lacks the discipline to avoid these unnecessary incidents, which ends up costing his team.

The Pumas are in a bad place right now. They’re defensively weak, and struggling to create many chances in attack, with their superstar wingers barely getting a chance to show their quality. When they get penalties, they need to make the most of them, not have them overturned, which then allows their opponents to not only clear their lines but also set up their own attacks. If Kremer can continue to play the enforcer but cut out these stupid penalties, it will go a long way to helping the Pumas be more competitive.

The battle for number 10

Go back a couple of months and it looked like Noah Lolesio was at a point where he would be taking over the Australian number 10 jersey on a long-term basis. Suddenly, it looks like he has dropped out of the 22, with Quade Cooper coming out of the cold and James O’Connor returning from injury.

Both Cooper and O’Connor are incredibly talented players who have had rollercoaster careers. Yet now that they are in their 30s, they have both matured as players and also developed into true leaders at the fly half position, and I would argue that they give the Wallabies the best chance of winning right now—just as long as Lolesio is kept in the squad to learn off them.

But what we also saw on Saturday was a great way for the pair to be used. As the specialist 10, Cooper makes sense as the starter, especially while Nic White is being entrusted with the starting spot at 9. But then you have the chance to replace the pair with O’Connor and Tate McDermott with 20-30 minutes left, and the pair can use their chemistry from playing together for the Reds and McDermott’s threat around the fringes of the breakdown to terrorise a tiring defence.

Not only that, but O’Connor’s versatility is perfect for the Australian bench, as he is also able to come on to cover fullback should the starter get hurt or provide injury cover or a different tactical option at centre alongside Cooper.

With the World Cup just a couple of years away, could these two be the ones to lead Australia to victory, before finally passing over the torch to the next generation.

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v South Africa

The penultimate round of the 2021 Rugby Championship kicked off with what many of us have been looking forward to for a while: the 100ᵗʰ Test match between South Africa and New Zealand. With the World Champions coming off 2 losses and New Zealand having taken the top spot in the rankings after last weekend, the scene was set in Perth for what would hopefully be a thrilling match.

And thrilling was exactly what the teams served up in the opening exchanges, with both teams scoring in the first 5 minutes. Codie Taylor found a gap to breakout f his own half after just 2 minutes and fed the supporting Will Jordan, who could not by caught by any of the covering defenders. Then just minutes later, a Faf de Klerk bomb into the New Zealand 22 was dropped by the usually reliable George Bridge, and before anyone could react, Sbu Nkosi swooped in to grab the loose ball and go over for the try, though Handré Pollard’s missed conversion left the Boks behind. Sadly for anyone late to their seat, they proved to be the only tries of the game, as handling errors on both sides brought a number of attacks to premature ends, however there was still plenty of great rugby to keep fans enthralled. Over the next 10 minutes, Pollard made up for his missed conversion with 2 penalties to give his side a lead, but Jordie Barrett cut the lead with a penalty of his own on 30 minutes. Then with 5 minutes left in the half, New Zealand looked to spread the ball wide, only for a deliberate knock on by Nkosi to bring the attack to an early end, resulting in a yellow card for the wing and 3 points for the kiwis, who went into the break with a 13-11 lead.

The second half would be more of the same, though impressive cameos from back rowers Hoskins Sotutu and Marco van Staden certainly livened up the latter stages. Pollard and Barrett traded penalties around the hour mark, before Pollard added another penalty to put the Boks back ahead by a point with just over 10 minutes remaining. As the clocked ticked down, it looked like the Boks may be able to hold on for a much-needed win, until Willie Le Roux was forced to drop on a loose ball and Quinn Tupaea was straight over the top to win a penalty for holding on, and Jordie Barrett held his nerve to kick the All Blacks to a 19-17 victory that mathematically secured them the Rugby Championship title.

Over the last couple of weeks, South Africa have found themselves struggling with the niggle of the Wallabies at the breakdown. Well this week, despite the quality in the All Blacks back row, it was the Boks who were causing the issues at the breakdown. With Kwagga Smith brought in as another specialist back row in place of Franco Mostert, the World Champions were left with 3 true back rowers to match up against New Zealand and target the breakdown, hampering the quick and clean ball TJ Perenara wanted and putting him under heavy pressure.

With another more open game, Kwagga Smith looked much more comfortable in this match, while he was partnered by the always-impressive Duane Vermeulen and captain Siya Kolisi, whose performances are reaching Michael Hooper levels of consistent excellence that they go under the radar.

As great as the All Blacks are, they still need quick and clean ruck ball like any team. With a reliable defence like any top international team should have, sufficient pressure at the breakdown could just be enough to hold the All Blacks to a beatable score.

Best of the bunch?

If I was forced into a situation where I was only allowed to pick one of the Barrett brothers for my All Blacks squad, it would be Jordie. While all 3 of the brothers are incredible talents, the youngest of the trio has a versatility that the others don’t having played across the back 3 at Test level and also featured at 10 for the Hurricanes. But he also has the attributes to provide cover in the centres, with the strength to look after himself in contact, the pace to exploit a gap and the handling skills to not just keep a play going but to put a teammate through in space.

But what he also has is a monster boot. While his goalkicking percentages have generally been in the mid-70s at the highest for a season, he is putting together a run of games as the All Blacks’ primary kicker with Richie Mo’unga not involved, and that is leading to much more accurate performances as he is not just getting given he difficult kicks. And by having the chance to find his range and experience the crowd while kicking throughout the match, it suddenly makes those clutch kicks like this week’s match winner so much easier.

The All Blacks have depth at every position, but with his versatility, I think they should always be finding a spot for a matchwinner like him.

Go with the Flo

This match saw former 7s star and specialist back row Kwagga Smith restored to the Springboks 7 jersey in place of Franco Mostert, with Pieter-Steph du Toit currently out injured. After struggling in a few matches as South Africa kept things tight, Smith looked much better in a more open match.

However, he does still appear to be giving away a number of penalties, which at international level can be a killer. Now it’s understandable that he is playing on or beyond the line of legality as much as he can, as he wants to have a positive on the game and be visible to the coaches in order to keep getting selected with such depth available in the South African back row. However in rugby, sometimes you can try too hard, and that can end up harming your team.

Of course, Smith is still relatively inexperienced at Test level, so he will improve in time. What he needs to do is take a page out of the book of a former Springbok star, Francois Louw. While Louw was incredible at the breakdown, what made him a star was the way that he picked his moments, knowing when to hold off and join the defensive line and when to go in for the kill and get that crucial turnover. If Smith can add this nous to his game, then expect to see him holding down a place in the 23 for the foreseeable future.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v New Zealand

With Australia having completed the double over South Africa, it was time for part 2 of the double header, which saw winless Argentina face off against unbeaten New Zealand. With 2 matches against World Champions coming up, The All Blacks gave a number of big names a rest, but it was still a highly capable side sent out to face the Pumas, and it took just 5 minutes for them to open the scoring, with a break from Hoskins Sotutu releasing Will Jordan, who was stopped just short, only for Patrick Tuipulotu to crash over from short range. Emiliano Boffelli and Jordie Barrett traded penalties, but the Kiwis were looking for tries, and came close on 2 more occasions in the opening quarter, with both Jordan and Reiko Ioane having scores ruled out. However it was third time lucky on 26 minutes, as New Zealand got the shove on at a 5m scrum, allowing TJ Perenara to attack the blind side and—with Jordie Barrett attracting the attention of the wide defender—outpace the Pumas back row to the corner. Just minutes later, Reiko Ioane found a gap in midfield and utilised his break to get away, only to be hauled down just short of the line. He successfully dotted the ball down but a referral to the TMO found that he had got back to his feet while held by the tackler so he again found his try ruled out. With the half coming to a close, a break from Ardie Savea and a clever chip down the right wing brought the All Blacks up to the Argentina try line again, and after a number of phases, the ball squirted out as Samisoni Taukei’aho was stopped short, only for Savea to flick the ball into the hands of Tupou Vaa’i, who had to simply take one step to make it in for another try and a 3-24 halftime lead.

After the break, it was the Pumas who got on the scoresheet first through another Boffelli penalty, but New Zealand stretched their lead just minutes later as Will Jordan’s flick-on from Quinn Tupaea allowed Ardie Savea to draw the covering defender and send Taukei’aho over in the corner. Despite still clearly being second best, the Pumas were certainly more of an attacking threat in the second half, and finally got a try when Boffelli caught Santiago Carreras’ inch-perfect cross-kick and dotted down under pressure from Barrett and Jordan. However they almost conceded off the restart as Carreras’ clearance was charged down by Finlay Christie, only for the replacement scrum half to lose control as he tried to dot down. As the second half went on, the Pumas continued to grow into the game and start creating chances, but they kept finding ways to bring their attacks to disappointing ends, and with just a few minutes left in the game, the All Blacks finished with a flourish as Scott Barrett carried through contact and threw a lovely offload out the back of his hand for Vaa’i to go over for his second try of the game, with Jordie Barrett converting to secure a 13-36 win that should see the All Blacks jump to the top of the World Rankings.

Out of place

When I noted last week that Santiago Carreras was an option to cover fly half, I sure as hell wasn’t expecting Mario Ledesma to give him the 10 shirt this week and put Domingo Miotti on the bench! While Carreras has covered the position at times and certainly has the skill set, he has never started there at Test level, nor in Super Rugby or the Premiership.

And that inexperience certainly showed in this game, with 2 exit kicks charged down and a few other issues. But he certainly grew into the game, and came to life even more as the game opened up in the second half. If I’m being completely honest though, what he did best could have honestly been done from the fullback position.

Could Carreras be the next star at 10 for the Pumas? I certainly think he has the skillset, but he would have to start playing the position almost exclusively at both Test and club level, which isn’t going to happen considering Gloucester have just brought in Adam Hastings. At 23 years old, Carreras is at a crucial point in his career. He has the potential to become one of the world’s best, but to do that, he needs to start playing the same position week in week out. And if he’s going to be prioritising one position, I feel that it has to be fullback.

The best three

It’s absolutely crazy to me that Hoskins Sotutu is not a regular in this All Blacks side. Granted there are plenty of fantastic back row options available even with Sam Cane missing, but the Blues number 8 provides everything you want from the position: pace, power, good handling skills and an analytical brain. Ardie Savea may be the incumbent, but he could easily move to 7 with Cane absent, as he did for this game.

With 2 matches coming up against a wounded South African team, picking the right back row will be vital. You want a back row dynamic enough to run rings around the Springboks if they try to play an open game, but also a back row big enough and strong enough to front up to the might of the Springboks.

For me, there is only one trio to pick. Ardie Savea is guaranteed to start somewhere in the back row, and I would start him at 7, with Sotutu retaining his place at number 8, and the impressive Akira Ioane returning at 6. By picking this trio, you have 3 strong, dynamic ball carriers for the Springbok defence to deal with, while Ioane and Savea working as enforcers in defence. However, this is Ian Foster picking the team, so don’t be shocked to see Sotutu drop straight back out of the 23.

Step backwards

Over recent years, the Pumas have taken so many steps forward, but suddenly appear to be falling apart. One thing that has consistently been the case in recent weeks is that the team is creating chances in most games, but then making some error to bring the chance to an end. The more I have thought about it, the more I think that this is at least in part due to the loss of the Jaguares.

Through the 4 seasons of the Jaguares being part of Super Rugby, we saw a clear improvement in the quality of the national team, as the vast majority of the players were training and playing together every week. And while that may have limited them against the elite teams, it was enough to at least make them able to challenge in every match.

However, with COVID stopping cross-border Super Rugby competition, the Jaguares were left out in the cold, and that has remained the case as South Africa’s teams have joined the Ultimate Rugby Championship, while the Australian and New Zealand franchises have been joined by Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua in the new Super Rugby Pacific. This means that they are the only Tier 1 nation without a single club in a top-tier league.

Having their squad spread all around the globe, it makes it so much harder to bring everyone together sufficiently enough to build up any chemistry. Similarly, it is harder for prospective future stars to make the step up, as they will likely need to get on the international scene before a top flight club takes an interest in them.

But where can Argentina look to re-establish the Jaguares? It’s unlikely that Super Rugby Pacific will be looking to add more teams any time soon. The Ultimate Rugby Championship is focused over just a couple of time zones even if there is some distance between South Africa and the other nations involved. The Premiership and Top 14 are both domestic leagues for just 1 single country each. The only established professional league that would make sense would be the MLR, but that league isn’t yet to the level of competition that Argentina need to challenge at the top level, though it would at least allow them to potentially bring back a few of their internationals while also find new young talent to then potentially pick up contracts in the elite leagues.

In the meantime though, don’t be shocked to see the Pumas continue to struggle as they adapt to the loss of the Jaguares.

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v South Africa

With the 2021 Rugby Championship entering its fourth round, last week’s shock victory for the Wallabies over World Champions South Africa had really opened up the table. With this round being a reverse of last week’s fixtures, the Springboks had an immediate chance to get revenge, but they almost went behind after just 4 minutes after a break by Samu Kerevi off first phase ball was ended only by Andrew Kellaway failing to keep hold of Folau Fainga’a’s offload. The Springboks soon had a chance of their own with a 5m lineout, but after Eben Etzebeth broke off early and was brought to ground, he was adjudged to have crawled along the floor. The Wallabies were soon back on the attack, and after Faf de Klerk was sent to the bin for cynically killing the ball, it took them just a few phases from the resulting 5m lineout before Len Ikitau stepped out of Handré Pollard’s tackle and crossed for his first Test try. Pollard cut the lead with a penalty, but Ikitau was soon over for a second try, after a clever inside pass from Tom Banks to the late-arriving Marika Koribete helped create an overlap on the right, with the wing then sending the young centre over in the corner. With South Africa back to 15 men, the game tightened up, and Pollard kicked 3 penalties to one from Cooper, while Lachlan Swinton also spent 10 minutes on the naughty step for a no-arms tackle on Duane Vermeulen.

Having cut Australia’s lead to just 3 points by half time, the World Champions took the lead soon after the break, with Faf de Klerk putting in a clever grubber down a narrow blindside and Lukhanyo Am beating the turning Reece Hodge before dotting the ball down—a small atonement for last week. However they could not match up to the Wallabies for long, and the introduction of Pete Samu from the bench just opened the game up even more, with Marika Koroibete starting the final quarter with his first 2 tries of the campaign. With the game entering the final 10 minutes, the Wallabies held a 13 point lead and the South Africans were pushing for a try, but some solid Australian defence saw Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi each winning crucial turnover penalties, while Cobus Wiese was given a yellow card for going off his feet to hit Kerevi in the head at the second turnover, allowing the Wallabies to clear their lines and hold on for a 30-17 victory that will see them climb into the top 3 of the World rankings and go just 1 point behind South Africa in the table.

Finely balanced

It’s amazing how just a couple of personnel changes can completely change a team, but that seems to be what has happened here with the Wallabies. With Quade Cooper coming in at 10 and not needing a second playmaker at centre, it has given the Wallabies the opportunity to play a more physical 12 in Samu Kerevi and a 13 in Ikitau who can exploit the space provided.

With that midfield, coupled with a strong and dynamic carrier in Marika Koroibete, and you have a back line capable of running riot and creating space for Banks and Kellaway. However a great back line still needs a pack to help them, and they are developing that too. Taniela Tupou must be close to having his membership to the front row union revoked with the way he plays in the open—just look at his input for Koroibete’s try! Meanwhile in the back row, Michael Hooper is always a danger in space, while Rob Valentini just looks more comfortable throwing his weight around with every match. and then when Pete Samu comes off the bench, he brings another dynamic carrier who also has the strength to beak tackles.

By having these carriers, Australia now have not just the necessary physicality to break the gainline, but the players to follow that up and keep the team on the front foot with 3 or 4 phases of hard carrying. Then add in the handling skills of some of these players like Tupou and Kerevi, and there is the distinct threat that one line break could be all it takes for the team to get over for a try.

Wrong man

While I think that Australia got their selections almost spot on this week, I think that South Africa made a big mistake. With Pieter-Steph du Toit missing trough injury, Franco Mostert was moved into the back row and Malvin Orie given the start at lock. While this selection would fit how the team has played of late, they finally chose to play attacking rugby in this match, and I think the selection of Mostert at flanker hurt them.

This is nothing against Mostert, he is a great player with an incredible engine, but the open game is then asking so much more of him. A better selection would have been one of the three back rowers on the bench: Kwagga Smith. The former 7s star is an incredible talent, but his speed and ability to get around the park is much more effective in an open game like this than the tight territorial battles we have seen the Springboks play of late.

Wanting Mostert at flanker to provide a third lineout option was understandable during the Lions series, but with Duane Vermeulen back in the line-up, this isn’t necessary. South Africa have great strength in depth, Jacques Nienaber now needs to start considering which players are better for the type of game they are looking to play.

Captain Fantastic

While doing the double over the World Champions is already cause for celebration, it was even more so for Michael Hooper, who was becoming the Wallabies’ most capped captain. With 113 caps to his name (placing him 28ᵗʰ all time for most-capped rugby players) and at only 29 years old, her certainly has the chance to add plenty more caps to his tally before his career comes to an end.

And those caps are all well-earned. The openside is a fantastic talent, one of the very best fetchers in the Southern Hemisphere, but also with the leadership and an all-round game that sets him apart from many other 7s. Hooper’s work rate is unmatched, and even in the worst Australian performances, he will often still stand out as one of the best players on the park. He has great handling skills and the speed to be like another centre when the team is on the attack, but also the strength and grit to match any back rower in the more physical side of the game. And as this tournament has proved, he’s not afraid to spill some claret for his country.

Perhaps it has been due to playing so much of his career in the shadow of David Pocock, perhaps it is the way Australia have been so up and down through his career; whatever the reason, I don’t believe that Hooper gets the wider acclaim that he deserves. Considering how frequently he has had to adapt to new laws at the breakdown during his career, when he hangs up his boots in the (hopefully still far away) future, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him remembered as one of the best opensides to play the game.

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

With New Zealand having earned their victory over Argentina, it was time for part 2 of the double header as World Champions South Africa faced off against hosts Australia. After the return of Izack Rodda and Samu Kerevi to the Wallabies 23 last week, this time it was the return of Quade Cooper that was grabbing people’s attention, and he got off to a solid start, trading 2 penalties apiece with Handré Pollard. The game was a tight affair, but could have taken a drastic turn on 15 minutes as Siya Kolisi tip tackled Tom Banks and was lucky that the fullback braced his fall with an arm, leading to just a yellow card for the Springbok captain. With the Boks a man down, Australia immediately took advantage of the extra space, and when Kerevi stepped inside Faf de Klerk, he created the space to send Andrew Kellaway over in the corner. The Springboks fought back, but failed to take their chances, with Pollard missing a penalty, then Lukhanyo Am fumbling the ball as he collected a grubber in the Australian in-goal under pressure from Tate McDermott. However a series of strong mauls forced the Wallabies pack to infringe, and as Kolisi returned to the pitch, Matt Philip was sent to the bin, and the change in numbers saw the Boks maul over for Bongi Mbonambi to score. Pollard missed the conversion, though, while Cooper maintained his 100% record with two more penalties to open up an 11-19 lead at the break.

Pollard had a chance to cut the lead early in the second half, only for his attempt to come back off the post, but his next attempt successfully cut the lead to 5. Australia’s next attack showed promise but came to an early end as Willie Le Roux was adjudged to have knocked on deliberately, leading to another penalty from Cooper and a 10-minute spell on the sidelines for the fullback, where he was soon joined by Australia’s Folau Fainga’a following a no-arms tackle to the lower leg. With the Boks again having a man advantage in the pack, they one again drove a 5m lineout over for a try, with replacement hooker Malcolm Marx the beneficiary this time. As the game entered the final quarter, Cooper kicked another penalty, but a second try for Marx from a third 5m lineout gave the Boks a late lead, though replacement fly half Damian Willemse pushed his kick wide to the right. It looked like a valiant effort from the Wallabies would fall just short, but a powerful drive at a later South African scrum saw Kwagga Smith drop on the loose ball and, with the rest of his pack being pushed backwards, Nic White was able to win the holding on penalty and Cooper, playing his first Test since 2017, stepped up to complete his perfect day off the tee and give the Wallabies a 26-28 victory.

He’s back!

With a couple of below-par performances, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see a change to Australia’s playmaking set-up this week. And while it was a shame to see Noah Lolesio drop out of the 23, there was the excitement of seeing what Quade Cooper could do in his first Test appearance since facing Italy 4 years ago. Looking back at the match, it’s safe to say that it worked out well.

I suggested after the last match that being the sole playmaker in the backline and dealing with the goal kicking was too much pressure on Lolesio’s young shoulders. But Cooper has the experience to shoulder this responsibility and finished the game with a 100% (8/8) record off the tee for a total of 23 points, which ended up being the difference as South Africa’s misses off the tee proved costly.

But more than that, Cooper got the back line firing in a way Lolesio hadn’t against the All Blacks. Kerevi’s inclusion last week started to improve things, but with Cooper now pulling the strings the centre was truly unleashed, as Cooper would take the ball on to interest the defence, then play his man through a gap. Similarly, Cooper also did a great job of varying the attack to keep the vaunted South African defence guessing, much like when Finn Russell was introduced in the final Lions Test this summer.

At 33 years old, Cooper clearly isn’t the future of Australian rugby, but he is a talent that the team will truly benefit from having among them as the youngsters gain experience at this level. And with the World Cup just 2 years away, could he bring his career to an end at the showpiece event in France.

Broken down

We’re so used to seeing the Springboks dominate at the breakdown, but in this match, they really seemed to struggle. While I think part of this is down to missing a player with the nous of Pieter-Steph du Toit, I think that they were genuinely shocked by the ferocity with which the Australians attacked the breakdown. And not just the initial battle over the ball, but the continued fighting and nuisance-making from the Wallabies players once the Boks had secured the ball.

Sometimes the Wallabies went a little too far and gave away a penalty, but on the whole they toed the line just right, and that left Faf de Klerk under too much pressure to be able to control the game in the way that we expect him to, putting more pressure on Handré Pollard and the rest of the team. Don’t be shocked to see the Boks trying to better secure the ball at the back of the rucks this week.

Tipping the balance

Watching Australia in recent weeks, their back row has looked so much better once Pete Samu has come off the bench. Michael Hooper remains one of the best—and potentially most underrated—7s in world rugby, while Rob Valentini is successfully growing into his role as the muscle of the trio. However, I feel that Lachlan Swinton is finding it difficult to be an enforcer at 6 following such a quick step up to international level. Similarly, I also feel that, as someone who usually plays flanker, Valentini is a little limited at number 8, as he does not have that same experience especially at the back of the scrum.

Personally, I think that moving Valentini to 6 would allow him to become that big carrier similar to how Akira Ioane is currently being utilised by the All Blacks, then bringing in a more specialised number 8. Bringing in either Samu or Harry Wilson would then provide the Wallabies with another carrying option as both run incredibly smart supporting lines.

At Test level, you need to be getting the most out of all 23 players in the squad. I’m not sure that the starting back row has quite done this in recent weeks, but the change I’ve done above could be the next step on making the Wallabies a constant threat again, while also increasing the likelihood that they are attacking with quick ball on the front foot.

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

Round 3 of the 2021 Rugby Championship kicked off with the first of a double-header as New Zealand took on Argentina. The All Blacks were coming in off the back of a 3-0 whitewash of Australia in the Bledisloe Cup, and took the lead in fortuitous circumstances after 10 minutes as Beauden Barrett’s pass was batted down by Bautista Delguy, only to bounce into the in-goal for Reiko Ioane to dot down. Just a few minutes later, Beauden Barrett took an opportunity under penalty advantage to chip into the back of the Puma’s in-goal, with brother Jordie collecting on the full but his momentum just carrying him out the back of the in-goal before he could dot the ball down. While the Pumas’ defence was just about holding on, there was very little for the team to write home about in attack, but they finally won a penalty just after the 20 minute mark, only for Nicolás Sánchez’s shot to drop short, while Beauden Barrett stretched his team’s lead to 10 points with a penalty just after the half hour. As the half came to an end, the All Blacks attack began to start creating more chances. Jordie Barrett again just ran out of space chasing his brother’s grubber into the in-goal, but Sevu Reece squeezed over from close range with just 5 minutes left in the half. The Pumas likely would have considered a 15-0 halftime deficit fortunate, however one last attack from the All Blacks saw Pablo Matera sent to the bin for killing the ball, and the All Blacks took advantage of the extra man to drive Dalton Papali’i over from a 5m lineout for a 22-0 halftime score.

If the first half had been one-sided, the second would be even worse. One of the rare times the Pumas got to the New Zealand 22, the Kiwis won a penalty and TJ Perenara went quick, sparking an attack which saw them reach the Pumas half with ease. George Bridge was finally brought down out wide, but quick ball allowed Beauden Barrett to scythe through a gap in the defence, and as he finally ran out of space on the edge of the 22, he through an outrageous wide pass out the back of his hand to put Luke Jacobson over for a try. The Kiwis could have ran away with the game over the next 20 minutes, with Reece and Ethan Blackadder having tries disallowed and Bridge and Quinn Tupaea both being held up over the line. However, with the Pumas again down to 14 following a yellow card to Carlos Muzzio, New Zealand got a wheel and push on a 5m scrum, which allowed Jacobson to peel off and go over for his second try of the game, with Jordie Barrett adding the simplest of conversions and a late penalty to secure a 39-0 victory.

Lacking

It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, we were watching Argentina defeat New Zealand. This team at the moment is severely lacking, and I honestly can’t see where they’re going to get a point in this year’s tournament.

Despite having quality throughout the squad, their attack has looked almost non-existent bar a few short periods over these opening 3 rounds. And the defence in this match was questionable to say the least. Rather than coming up in the opposition’s faces, the Pumas appeared to almost sit off and allow the ball carrier to come to them. Why? I think the plan was to try isolating the ball carrier and turning them over at the breakdown—which they did to great success in some moments—but it instead allowed the All Blacks to get on the front foot, which then led to the Pumas having to kill the ball illegally or get ripped to shreds as their defence failed to set in time.

And then we come to the lineout. While the Pumas continued to have some success getting up to spoil opposition ball, if they failed to win it they were in trouble, as they had no way to legally stop the All Blacks driving maul. With coaches like Mario Ledesma and Michael Cheika on the books, to be so bad at a key set piece is embarrassing, and it gifted the All Blacks so many chances alongside Papali’i’s try. Until the Pumas start to seriously sort things out, a team that looked on the up will continue to drop down the World Rankings.

Plan B

With just 8 spots on the bench and usually only 3 at most for backs, it is hard to decide who to pick to maximise your chances of a win while also making sure that you have cover for as many positions as possible. As such a specialist position, one of these spots will almost always be taken by a scrumhalf, to ensure that there is cover should the starting 9 be forced off injured.

What really surprised me with this match was Mario Ledesma’s decision to go without any real cover at fly half. Nicolás Sánchez is an elite 10 on his day, but has been struggling in this tournament, yet neither Domingo Miotti nor Joaquín Díaz Bonilla was on the bench, while Santiago Carreras—who could fill in at the position but is far from a specialist—was also not included in the 23. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly leaves a large degree of risk should anything happen to the starting 10, which is exactly what happened in this match as Sánchez hobbled off on 53 minutes to be replaced by Emiliano Boffelli.

Granted it probably didn’t effect this game much, as the Pumas spent most of the second half either defending or under their own posts, but in a close match, losing your game manager with nobody really experienced at the position to cover for him could be very costly. It will be interesting to see if the Pumas take this risk again. I would expect that at the very least, Carreras makes the bench due to his quality and versatility.

Limited opportunity

I’ve not been silent in my belief over recent years that Asafo Aumua is the All Black’s next star at hooker. The Hurricane has an incredible balance of physicality and athleticism that would surprise many people.  And yet due to the continued presence of Dane Coles, Aumua has struggled to solidify himself as a starter at Super Rugby level, which has now seen him fall behind Chiefs’ Samisoni Taukei’aho, who is a physical player but not quite as mobile as the ‘Canes hookers or Codie Taylor.

Well Aumua got a chance in this game, but it certainly felt like that chance was limited. The Hurricanes contingent in the squad is well lower than a few years ago, and with Ardie Savea missing this match there were no potential lineout options that Aumua would have an established connection with. And then to make his job even harder, lineout master Sam Whitelock wasn’t even playing in this game, which would have immediately impacted the set piece regardless of who was at hooker.

Aumua didn’t play bad but he certainly didn’t have as big an impact as he would have wanted and was unfortunately pulled off surprisingly early, just 4 minutes into the second half. Hopefully he gets another, more significant chance in the near future.