Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

This season’s shorter Rugby Championship came to an end in Salta as Argentina hosted South Africa. Last week’s draw in New Zealand, combined with the All Blacks’ loss to Australia earlier in the day, left South Africa knowing that victory would see them win the tournament for the first time since the 2009 Tri Nations. Things didn’t start well for them, as Santiago Cordero dotted down within 2 minutes, but the Springboks turned things round to lead 13-22 at the break before holding the Pumas scoreless on the way to a 13-46 victory and the Rugby Championship crown.

Argentina

On 6ᵗʰ July, the Jaguares were playing in the Super Rugby final. Just over a month later, the vast majority of those players are looking back at a Rugby Championship campaign that has finished winless. In Super Rugby they looked so dangerous but in recent weeks, they have struggled to get much going on a regular basis. I think that this comes down to one main thing: fatigue. Due to Argentina’s policy of only selecting home-based players when possible, that has limited the national team to picking the majority of their players from just 1 top flight team. This means that the majority of these players are coming off the back of a long Super Rugby season where they are having to regularly travel vast distances to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, while their replacements are in the exact same situation. Sadly, with the World Cup just around the corner, I think that the Pumas will need to keep picking strong squads in their warm-up matches to try building some momentum, which will lead to all of their top players going into the pool stages tired and likely to under-perform.

How can this be changed? Like Italy in the Pro 14, Argentina needs a second franchise in a top tier league. That way they can double the player base they can pick from, which will allow them to pick fresher players and increase the competition in the squad. The issues here? Well first of all, Super Rugby does not look to be in any position to take on a new franchise given they are in the process of cutting the Sunwolves, the Pro 14 may accommodate them but the travel would be ridiculous and the MLR is not anywhere near the level of the top-tier leagues at the moment, so an MLR franchise would more likely be a feeder for the Jaguares. If we imagine for a moment that Super Rugby did add a second Argentine franchise, we would then need to expect a decline in Argentina’s success in Super Rugby for a few seasons as a number of Jaguares players would likely move to the second franchise for more regular starts, so both teams would need to build up their depth.

It doesn’t look like there’s any easy fix, but as things stand it may be that the Pumas have reached their peak.

South Africa

Last week I discussed how South Africa put in a solid but unspectacular performance to tie against New Zealand. While they had some moments to break out in this game, it was much more of the same from the Springboks, and I think they are better for it. The centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am is shutting down some of the best attacking teams in World Rugby, the pack is looking dominant despite missing captain Siya Kolisi, and in Handré Pollard they have the perfect 10 for this style of play.

Pollard is a physical player who can hold his own in defence and attack, but more than that he is a player who will do the right thing on the ball. With players like Faf de Klerk in the team, he does not have the full weight of controlling the game on his shoulders and he is revelling in the chance to show his quality. Though he has his off days with the boot, he has a good range and finished this game with a haul of 31 points (2 tries, 3 conversions, 5 penalties). Jantjies gives a good option off the bench (with Pollard able to move to 12 if they want another playmaker) but Rassie Erasmus has to stick with the hot hand right now, and that is Handré Pollard.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Despite playing outside Argentina, Santiago Cordero has been given the start in the last 2 matches and his try will have really helped him earn a seat on the plane to Japan. I recently suggested that Marcos Kremer could make the squad as cover at lock, and being given the start in the second row this weekend suggested that Ledesma is looking to do so. For the Springboks, Makazole Mapimpi will have appreciated the extra freedom to attack in this match and finished with a try, while Trevor Nyakane put in a strong performance in the scrums and completed all 15 of his tackles in defence.

With Bongi Mbonambi putting in a strong performance, Schalk Brits will likely be left hoping Rassie Erasmus chooses to take 3 hookers to Japan. As arguably one of the best 9s in the world, Faf de Klerk‘s poor performance won’t have cost him a place in the squad, but it may have put him under pressure from the in-form Herschel Jantjies. Given the strength in depth for the Pumas in the back 3, Ramiro Moyano will be hoping a quiet tournament doesn’t see him get overlooked if Bautista Delguy is fit, while Joaquín Díaz Bonilla may be a little nervous that Benjamín Urdapilleta was preferred for this game and managed to get some counterattacks going.


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Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

The final round of this season’s shorter Rugby Championship began in Perth this weekend 2019’s first Bledisloe Cup match. The Wallabies took an early lead with a try from Reece Hodge and though Anton Lienert-Brown & Rieko Ioane both crossed in the next 10 minutes, Australia led 16-12 at the break, while New Zealand were left reeling after a red card for Scott Barrett just before halftime. The extra man had an impact after the break as Australia scored a further 5 tries to the All Blacks’ 2 on their way a 47-26 victory, their biggest scoreline against New Zealand. Coupled with South Africa’s win later in Argentina, Australia finished 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament and the All Blacks an unprecedented 3ʳᵈ, leaving themselves at risk of losing their World #1 ranking to Wales.

Australia

With James O’Connor returning to the starting lineup and starting at 13 for the fist time in his Wallabies career, this partnership with Samu Kerevi was the 13ᵗʰ centre pairing they have used since the end of the 2015 World Cup. If this match is anything to go by though, Michael Cheika has finally found what should be his first choice midfield combination. Christian Leali’ifano has helped bring more control to the team while he also does a good job of attacking the line. Kerevi is in the form of his life and makes the big metres to put the team on the front foot, while bringing in O’Connor at 13 gave the team a much better balance than they had with Tevita Kuridrani as he had the pace, vision and skills to play whatever situation he was in, resulting in multiple assists in this game.

This close to the World Cup, Cheika now needs to give this midfield time together, but I would be interested to see Tom Banks given another go at fullback as O’Connor’s inclusion provides another playmaker option that reduces the need for Kurtley Beale (who has had his moments but on the whole been rather quiet) at 15. With a return to New Zealand next week, it will be interesting to see the back line selected.

New Zealand

I all the years that I’ve been regularly watching rugby, I can’t remember a New Zealand team that had so many questions to answer this close to the World Cup. The 6 shirt is one that has not been sufficiently filled since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand and while Ardie Savea looked to be the best option given the depth at 7, this performance from the back row was largely disappointing – though Savea did finish with more metres made than any other player in black. Richie Mo’unga has not looked comfortable at 10 with Beauden Barrett at 15, but I can’t help feel that part of this was due to the forwards not putting the team on the front foot and the ever-changing cast at 12 and 13 (this week saw Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue start, with Ngani Laumape replacing Goodhue just 19 minutes in). Whether at wing or fullback, Ben Smith has been a star for the All Blacks for years, but he has looked far from comfortable during recent matches .

Now it may just be that the team are experimenting with different options and do in fact have all their plans settled ready for the World Cup. If so, they are playing a dangerous game as people will be looking at the draw against South Africa and this loss with confidence. The All Blacks are looking not just beatable, but ordinary. Momentum can be a great thing when you start winning, but when you’re struggling its the exact opposite. They need to put in a big performance and get a result at home next weekend.

RWC2019 Winners and Losers

Starting with a man who has already received praise in this article, James O’Connor has come in from the cold and shown that not only is he deserving of a place in the 31-man squad, but he should arguably be starting. Tolu Latu is another who has overcome off-field issues and earned another shot with the national team. Starting today and putting in a strong performance, he’s surely cemented his place in the squad and may have even beaten Folau Fainga’a to the starting spot. While there were not many great performances from the men in black, Dane Coles looked back to his best and will be pushing to cement the starting spot despite strong opposition from Codie Taylor. Atu Moli‘s selection on the bench for this match also seems to have brought an end to Karl Tu’inukuafe’s chances of going to Japan, and he will be hoping to make it onto the plane as one of the loosehead options.

Moving onto players who maybe getting nervous about their places, Ben Smith will need to hope that Steve Hansen goes on the idea that “form is temporary, class is permanent” and continue to select him. His versatility and experience will likely save him but there is the distinct possibility that he could be a high profile exclusion. His try aside, Anton Lienert-Brown again struggled to impose himself on a match from the outset. He does so well off the bench, but in a limited-numbers squad and with so many options at centre, could that limited impact as a starter prove costly? The rise of Tolu Latu has possibly brought an end to Jordan Uelese‘s chances of making the squad, having not featured since his injury-hit cameo against South Africa. Another player whose chances of making the squad look to be over is Nick Phipps, who has not been involved in the tournament at all, with all the minutes going to Will Genia and Nic White.


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Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Saturday saw us enter the second half of this season’s Rugby Championship with Argentina’s trip to Brisbane. Both teams were looking to get some momentum following losses in the opening round, but it was the Wallabies who took an early lead at the Suncorp Stadium through the boot of Christian Leali’ifano and a Reece Hodge try from a set move gave then a 10-3 halftime lead. The Pumas got a try back through Facundo Isa, but were unable to find another try in the final 5 minutes, falling to a 16-10 loss.

Australia

While last week they were depressingly poor, there were better signs from the Wallabies in this match. Argentina’s pack are not as strong as South Africa’s and it really showed in this match, as Australia quickly painted the picture that they were dominant at the scrums, while Izack Rodda (33m), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (13m), Scott Sio (20m), Michael Hooper (30m) and Isi Naisarani (64m) all hit double figures for metres made, which along with 52m for Samu Kerevi did a great job of keeping the team on the front foot. Marika Koroibete also made good metres and did a great job of keeping Santiago Cordero quiet, while Leali’ifano looked at home on his return to international rugby following his comeback from leukaemia.

What will worry them, though is the sheer number of times Argentina managed to get in behind them defensively. If it wasn’t for some questionable decisions in contact, this result could have been very different. They may also be a little worried by the performance of Kurtley Beale, who was far less influential in attack compared to last week’s cameo off the bench and was lucky to get away with an awful kick that sat up nicely for the Argentina backs to counter.

Their upcoming Bledisloe Cup match will see the quality of opposition rise, if Australia aren’t careful, it could be a long 80 minutes for them.

Argentina

Last week I was disappointed with the amount of ball Argentina kicked away and wished that they would keep the ball in hand more. They certainly did that against the Wallabies, but I was still left disappointed with the style of play.

The backs are highly dangerous and they have great ball carriers in the pack, but too often they tried to offload the ball from contact when it wasn’t on, leading to many great chances ending prematurely. I can completely understand wanting to offload the ball as it stops the Australian defence from getting set and keeps them on the back foot, but so often it was leading to players getting isolated or handling errors that resulted in Australia either turning the ball over or regrouping. Even one time that they made it close to the try line, the ball was knocked on by a prop who couldn’t keep his eyes on the ball.

I think this team would really benefit from looking at the way Exeter play (Cordero could give them some tips), as Exeter get a great balance of quick, devastating attacks with offloads and also playing a more patient game, taking the tackle and setting up the breakdown, while when they reach to the line going through phases of pick-and-go drives to draw in the defence before spreading it wide to the open backs.

If Argentina can get the balance of play right in time for the World Cup, they will b extremely dangerous.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Christian Leali’ifano looked comfortably at home in the 10 jersey and has looked the best alternative to Bernard Foley (potentially even enough to compete for the starting role), which would be a great continuation of a wonderful story. Likewise, Facundo Isa managed to fit in on his return to the squad after a change in eligibility criteria allowed him to feature despite playing in France. For the Aussies, James Slipper did a great job of dominating (or at least making it look to the referee like he was dominating) his opposite number at the scrum and that, combined with his experience, is going to be pushing him towards a seat on the plane to Japan. Felipe Ezcurra was once again only given a handful of minutes at the end of the game, but earned a penalty at the breakdown with his jackaling and also seemed to up the tempo, which will certainly help his case for selection in a strong scrum half corps.

While Leali’ifano had a strong game, his replacement at 10 Matt To’omua struggled to have any impact on the game and get the back line firing in the same way. With the positions he covers (fly half and centre) being well covered by other more versatile players, he needs to put in a big performance to guarantee a spot in the squad. Joaquín Tuculet has found his 15 shirt under pressure from Emiliano Boffelli, while winger/fullback Santiago Cordero could be deemed surplus to requirements due to playing his club rugby in Europe. With such depth in the back 3, both needed big games but were kept relatively quiet by the Australians. James O’Connor may also be feeling nervous about his chances of going to Japan, as his return to the Australian team was limited to just 10 minutes at the end in a back line that was no longer firing.


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Eyes On: New Zealand v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: New Zealand v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

We reached the halfway point of this season’s Rugby Championship on Saturday (that’s a sad thought!) with a match between New Zealand and South Africa. The 2 teams will both be in Pool B at the World Cup, so while both teas were looking to test the depth of their squads in an attempt to pick the 31 men they take to Japan, both teams will have also wanted the psychological edge of a win over their rival.

In a match full of handling errors from the All Blacks, 2 South Africa penalties gave them an early lead, but a try for Jack Goodhue and Beauden Barrett’s conversion gave New Zealand a 7-6 lead at halftime. The game remained close throughout the second half and with the final play of the game Herschel Jantjies (on for much of the half following a failed HIA for Faf de Klerk) managed to collect a chip forward from Cheslin Kolbe to score out wide and Handrè Pollard slotted the conversion to secure a 16-16 tie. The All Blacks will more likely be concerned with the health of Brodie Retallick, however, as he suffered a dislocated shoulder that could put his World Cup in jeopardy.

New Zealand

Beauden Barrett had been the go-to fly half for New Zealand for a while now, but this match found him moved to fullback, while Richie Mo’unga took the 10 jersey. I really like this decision from Steve Hansen as I have been saying to my friends for a while that I would pick Mo’unga over Barrett as I find him a more reliable option, while moving Barrett to 15 keeps his playmaking ability on the park and arguably enhances it by giving him more space to work from, similar to what we were seeing with Damian McKenzie prior to his injury.

While Mo’unga had a shaky start with a couple of charged kicks, he grew into the game, while Barrett also had a strong game and got the assist for Goodhue’s try. What did surprise me though was the decision to give Barrett the kicking duties. Barrett has been the kicker for the All Backs on plenty of occasions so there is nothing new to learn there compared to Mo’unga. As it turns out, that decision arguably cost them the game as Barrett left 6 points on the field with 2 missed kicks that a top-level international kicker should be making, before being replaced off the tee by Mo’unga.

South Africa

So often in the past, a team has needed to play the best match of their season and still require some luck to avoid losing in New Zealand. That was not the case here though, as South Africa put in a good workmanlike performance that I would describe as solid rather than spectacular.

With Faf de Klerk at the helm, they did a great job of keeping the All Blacks down their end of the pitch and putting them under pressure, with Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am doing a great job of stopping them making ground through the middle. Cheslin Kolbe is tiny by present international rugby standards but was anything but a pushover, completing 13 of his 15 attempted tackles – only Kwagga Smith (15/16) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (14/16) made more for the Springboks.

The set piece saw them largely keep parity with the number 1 team in the world, and watching the replacement props come on and immediately win a scrum penalty against New Zealand’s starting front row will have given the team a huge psychological boost with a crucial rematch in Japan just months away.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

If 2 tries on debut wasn’t good enough for Herschel Jantjies, he did not look like a player earning just his second cap against the All Blacks and scoring the crucial try at the death by beating opposite number Aaron Smith to the ball will have made it even sweeter. Off the back of these 2 performances it’s hard to imagine Rassie Erasmus not taking him to Japan. The starting pack for the Boks certainly looked like the first choice players minus injured captain Siya Kolisi, which seems to suggest that Kwagga Smith is being heavily considered for a spot in the squad. By being the team’s top tackler and also having some great moments on the ball and at the breakdown, he certainly didn’t do himself any harm. For the All Blacks, Shannon Frizell was given a shot in the number 6 shirt that currently seems up for grabs and certainly grew into the game, while one of his rivals for the place, Vaea Fifita, was probably given a better shot of making the squad by covering the second row position on the bench. Brodie Retallick’s hopes of making the plane depend on how quickly he can recover from his dislocated shoulder, while Scott Barrett is also currently missing through injury, which gives Fifita a great chance to prove himself as an option at lock to increase his chances of making it onto the plane.

The player whose World Cup hopes were hurt most (literally in this case) was arguably Brodie Retallick, who has suddenly gone from a definite starter to someone hoping he can recover in time to make it into the squad. Sonny Bill Williams is making his way back from injury and though he was involved in the try, he struggled to have any significant impact on the match and put his team on the front foot in the same way that Ngani Laumape has. Moving over to South Africa, Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi both struggled at times in the lineout without providing as much as usual around the park, which could put them at risk if Schalk Brits can prove himself worthy of being first or second choice in the squad. Likewise, the success of Herschel Jantjies will put Cobus Reinach as risk if Rassie Erasmus decides to only take 2 scrum halves.


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Eyes On: Argentina v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Argentina v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

New Zealand and Argentina got underway in 2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship on Saturday in Buenos Aires. The Pumas chose to stick largely to the Jaguares players that just went all the way to a Super Rugby final, while the New Zealand squad was a blend of experience and experimental.

A try from Ngani Laumape and a Brodie Retallick interception just before halftime helped to give the All Blacks a 9-20 lead at the break. After the break, the Pumas held them scoreless, but could not fully make up the deficit, with Emiliano Boffelli’s try bringing the final score to 16-20.

Argentina

This was an odd match for the Pumas. Both as the Jaguares and the national team, they have shown over recent seasons that they are at their best when they are playing an open game and getting their outside backs into the game. While they looked dangerous when given the chance, their impact was limited in the first hour as Tomás Cubelli and Nicolás Sánchez played a territory-heavy game. While this kicking game did cause the All Blacks some problems – Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett surprisingly struggled under the high ball – and led to Boffelli’s try, it certainly felt like Argentina hared their chances by not keeping hold of the ball more.

When they started playing their usual game more in the second half, they started creating chances and came very close to getting the winner, only for a foot in touch to see the have a late try disallowed. With a 59% tackle completion percentage in this game, it could be suggested that playing a more possession-heavy game would have actually benefited them and quite possibly seen them come away with victory.

New Zealand

Ever since Richie McCaw’s retirement, the battle for the number 7 shirt has been a close one between Sam Cane and Ardie Savea. This match saw the battle temporarily put on hold though, as Cane was given the 7 shirt and Ardie Savea settled in at 8. Obviously, captain Kieran Read will still be the starter at the position until after the World Cup, but such was Savea’s performance, it could have seen him earn a starting spot in the 6 shirt. While he will cause issues at the breakdown, he comes into his own as a ball carrier and he did a good job of helping put the All Blacks on the front foot in the first half.

Vaea Fifita struggled to have an impact on the match in a 6 shirt that nobody has managed to claim as their own since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand. This close to the World Cup and with Matt Todd emerging as another potential option at 7, a switch across the scrum for Savea could allow the All Blacks to get their best players on the pitch at the same time.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Arguably the biggest winner from this game was Ngani Laumape, who was a star of this season’s Super Rugby and carried that form into this match with 72 metres (the most of anyone on the pitch) and a try. Sevu Reece didn’t get many chances to have the ball in space but looked good when he did and was also willing to go looking for the ball. For Argentina, Matías Moroni has been cementing his position on the right wing in the absence of Bautista Delguy and has surely guaranteed himself a spot on the plane.

While Laumape had a strong game, Anton Lienert-Brown was very quiet and once again seemed to suggest that he is better coming off the bench in a Test match compared to starting. Likewise, Vaea Fifita struggled to impact the game in attack while also giving away a couple of silly penalties, which will not help him in his battle for the 6 shirt. For the Pumas, nobody really played themselves out of contention, but getting only 10 minutes at the end will not have helped Felipe Ezcurra work his way up the pecking order in a deep scrum half depth chart.


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Eyes On: South Africa v Australia – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: South Africa v Australia – Rugby Championship 2019

2019’s shorter-format Rugby Championship got underway on Saturday as South Africa hosted Australia in Johannesburg. The Wallabies had a poor 2018 and would have been hoping to get some momentum ahead of the World Cup, however things have not started well with the Springboks taking a 14-10 halftime lead , before pulling away for a final score of 35-17, with tries from Lood de Jager, S’busiso Nkosi, Cobus Reinach and a brace from debuting scrum half Herschel Jantjies.

South Africa

Carlsberg don’t do Test rugby debuts, but if they did they would probably be similar to that of Herschel Jantjies. The diminutive Stormers halfback appears to have pulled ahead of the other South African-based scrum halves following a strong Super Rugby campaign and backed that up with a great performance here. Helped by a pack that generally kept him on the front foot, he barely looked phased by being on the big stage and scored 2 good tries – running a good supporting line off Nkosi for his first and taking advantage of an undefended 5m channel for his second – while he could have had another in between, only to be stopped just short.

Go back a couple of seasons and South Africa seemed to be really missing a quality 9, but suddenly they are spoiled for choice with Faf de Klerk currently one of the best in the world and Cobus Reinach back in the national team after being arguably the best int he Premiership at his position this season. Coming off the bench, Reinach showed that he was also ready to play at Test level for the first time since 2015 by keeping the ball moving quickly and even managed to cross for a try of his own.

It may be that Rassie Erasmus was considering taking 3 scrum halves to Japan anyway, but on these performance he may just decide to do so in order to avoid a selection headache.

Australia

I can’t imagine things changing this close to the World Cup, but I can’t see Australia having too good of a record this year with Michael Cheika at the helm.

Taniela Tupou’s yellow card was clear as day. It came after the whistle was blown, there was no attempt to wrap his arms around Rynhard Elstadt, it’s questionable whether he came through the (oft ignored these days) gate to enter the breakdown and he clearly didn’t attempt to keep his feet while doing so. It was a brainless infringement – especially considering Australia had just won the scrum – and he can honestly consider himself lucky that he made contact with Elstadt’s chest rather than head or a red would have been a no-brainer. And yet Cheika still came out questioning the quality of referee Paul Williams instead of his team’s awful performance.

I’ve had questions over some of his selections in the back line for a while and this match proved no different, as the backs struggled to put anything together for much of the match. Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty had awful games and Tom Banks was barely involved as the midfield struggled to create anything for them. Things improved once Matt To’omua and Kurtley Beale came on, which I really think is down to Foley having a second playmaker on the pitch to help him break down the defence. Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani are both quality centres but did not work well together in this team. It will be interesting to see if Cheika pairs one of the two (in my opinion, Kerevi) with a second playmaker in the centre for their next match.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

While Herschel Jantjies was one of the clear winners here in terms of pushing for a space on the plane to Japan, he was not the only one. Francois Louw rolled back the years with a strong performance, while also giving a timely reminder that he can cover the number 8 position while Warren Whiteley tries to get himself fit in time for the tournament. Isi Naisarani and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto put in good performances but their impact was hampered by a tight 5 that struggled to gain parity with their opposite numbers. Coming off the bench, Frans Steyn reminded fans of his quality with a strong cameo, carrying the ball more than André Esterhuizen had and for double the metres, while he also appeared to get the back line looking more cohesive.

As if Steyn’s impressive cameo wasn’t bad enough for André Esterhuizen, his own performance was pretty poor, with a series of mistakes and minimal impact running the ball, while in defence he struggled to deal with Samu Kerevi. Warrick Gelant‘s kicking was poor and his running was often aimless and sideways. As I mentioned above, if I was adding a playmaker into the Australian centre, I would pair them with Kerevi, who brought his Super Rugby form into this match, whereas Tevita Kuridrani struggled to impact the game. Perhaps the most unfortunate though was substitute hooker Jordan Uelese, who is fighting to be backup to Folau Fainga’a but found himself coming off just minutes after his introduction due to a head injury. Hopefully he gets another chance in the coming matches.


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Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

The 2018 Rugby Championship came to a close in Round 6 with a reverse of the Round 4 fixtures. If Round 4 will be remembered as the week of upsets, Round 6 will go down as the week of stunning comebacks as champions New Zealand scored 2 converted tries in the final 5 minutes to beat South Africa, while Australia overturned a 31-7 halftime deficit in Argentina to win 34-45, clawing themselves into third place in the standings at the Pumas’ expense.


South Africa 30-32 New Zealand

At 30-18 with just 10 minutes left, South Africa looked set to do an incredible double over the All Blacks. At the final whistle, they were left shell-shocked, trying to figure out how they were on the losing side. I would argue that things started going wrong for them slightly earlier in the match, just after the hour mark. From this point, the Springboks made the following changes:

  • 60′ Vincent Koch for Frans Malherbe
  • 63′ RG Snyman for Eben Etzebeth
  • 66′ Damian Willemse for Willie le Roux
  • 70′ Sikhumbuzo Notshe for Francois Louw
  • 73′ Embrose Papier for Faf de Klerk, Mbongeni Mbonami for Malcolm Marx
  • 74′ Tendai Mtawarira for Steven Kitshoff
  • 78′ Elton Jantjies for Damian de Allende

Now I think some of these substitutions, especially the removal of de Allende and le Roux, were due to injury rather than tactical reasons, but that is a lot of experience leaving the pitch in the final 20 minutes – a time when New Zealand are know to be at their most dangerous. Koch is a quality replacement but has been away from international rugby for years, while Jantjies lacks the same physicality of de Allende. But the sheer quality and – probably even more importantly – the experience of the players coming off the pitch was always going to make things difficult for the Springboks. De Klerk and Marx had been arguably 2 of the best players on the pitch, so if they were able to continue, they should have remained on til the very end. It’s important to build experience and strength in depth, but the chance to beat the All Blacks (twice in a handful of weeks!) should have been too good to turn down. Hopefully moving forwards, Rassie Erasmus will be a bit more careful with his substitutions in big games.

 

It feels crazy to say when talking about New Zealand, but their midfield struggled on Saturday. Much like the week before, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty failed to consistently create a threat in attack and Beauden Barrett also struggled. The back 3 of Ioane, Naholo and Smith were arguably wasted for the first 50 minutes. However, once Richie Mo’unga came on for Waisake Naholo (with Ben Smith moving to the wing and Barrett to fullback), the back line suddenly looked more dangerous and the All Blacks’ fortunes improved. I wonder if Steve Hansen has inadvertently found a new way to set up his squad, making up for the lack of creativity provided by this centre pairing by playing a 10/15 hybrid like Damian McKenzie or one of the Barretts at 15, but using Ben Smith as a more reliable option with more attacking midfield pairings. With the quality of players available and the versatility of many of the New Zealand backs, Hansen will have so many options at his disposal when he comes to creating his match-day 23s, even when he has a more limited number of players in the squad come the World Cup.


Argentina 34-45 Australia

Momentum is a cruel thing in professional sports, just ask the Pumas. They could not have had a much better start, Pablo Matera crossing for a try within 2 minutes on the way to a 14-0 lead by the 5 minute mark. Despite a try from Michael Hooper, the momentum was clearly with Argentina, who went into halftime 31-7 up despite having lost Nicolas Sanchez to injury during the half. However, their momentum stalled at halftime and the Wallabies got an early try through Izack Rodda, while Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty also crossed in quick succession. The momentum was now firmly against the Pumas who could only muster a single penalty in the second half to the Wallabies’ 38. Argentina had 68% possession and 68% territory in the first half, but were limited to 35% possession and 33% territory after the break.

A bit like the Springboks’ final 10 minutes, I think Argentina struggled with a lack of leadership when it was so desperately needed. Agustin Creevy is not the superstar he used to be anymore and I would argue that the Pumas would benefit from swapping him and Julian Montoya around, as Montoya has recently appeared more reliable at set pieces while bringing Creevy on against tired defences could get the best out of him while also bringing a highly experienced leader onto the pitch later in the game. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to get their European-based leaders back in the fold, sooner rather than later!

 

Full credit to the Wallabies for a stunning comeback, but I do not think that this should save Michael Cheika’s job. I’m not one to enjoy seeing coaches lose their job, but despite a strong team, the results have been poor and the first half performance at the weekend was an embarrassment! They have never been lower in the world rankings and should consider themselves extremely lucky not to finish bottom of the table in this Rugby Championship. It may not be ideal switching coaches especially just a year out from the World Cup, but they have just under 3 weeks until Bledisloe 3 (where there would be no pressure on them, having a new coach and being 2-0 down) followed by Autumn Internationals against Wales, Italy and England… there will be no better time before the World Cup. It will be interesting to see how the ARU act…


 

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 5

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 5

It will come as no surprise, but New Zealand have won the Rugby Championship for the 3rd consecutive time. Their 17-35 defeat of Argentina in Buenos Aires may not have been their best performance of the tournament, but it was a welcome bounce back after their loss to South Africa in the last round. Meanwhile, Australia – the only other team to have won the tournament in its 4-team format – find themselves bottom of the table with just one match left after a 23-12 loss in Port Elizabeth.


South Africa 23-12 Australia

He’s been scoring regularly in the tournament this year, but I’m still not sold on Aphiwe Dyantyi for the Springboks. The flyer from the Lions has scored 5 tries so far but I feel that quite a few of them have been down to being in the right place at the right time and benefitting from the players inside him – though I suppose that is a big part of playing on the wing. I often feel that away from the line he is too quick to put boot to ball rather than taking the contact and recycling, which has wasted a number of possessions for South Africa. Defensively as well he looks vulnerable. At the death against New Zealand, his flying out the line did enough to make Damian McKenzie knock on to end the game, but rushing out is not always the option. He did it so many times against Australia, a backline performing better (more on that soon) would have taken advantage of it and isolated him to break down his wing. He was also completely outjumped at a crosskick by Israel Folau close to the line and was lucky Australia couldn’t capitalise from it. He looks like he could be a great player and a dangerous asset for the Springboks in the coming years, but he still has work to do to reach his best.

The Australian back line is a mess! I’ve wrote previously how I think that finding another 10 to compete with Bernard Foley is a smart idea, but Kurtley Beale is not the answer as he needs more space to work his magic. As if that wasn’t bad enough, once the subsitutions started, players seemed to be moving everywhere! Foley came on but appeared to be in the centre with Folau, Toomua moved to fly half, Beale was at fullback, Hodge and Haylett-Petty covered the wings. I like how versatile all the players are, but that formation makes no sense at all! Too often in this tournament the Wallabies’ back line has looked fairly impotent and in this match it felt like any real danger to South Africa came from the back 3 returning kicks and other moments of broken play. I think they are missing the physical presence of Tevita Kuridrani or Samu Kerevi – who are both out injured – in the midfield. But injuries happen and Cheika does not appear to be able to find a formula that works in their absence.


Argentina 17-35 New Zealand

When most rugby fans my age or older think of Argentinian rugby, they probably remember the days of dominant packs pushing their opposition around the park. That is sadly no longer the case. The Pumas scrum was manhandled by the All Blacks and the lineout struggled at times, going 11/16, with captain Agustin Creevy struggling to hit his man at the top of his jump. In part, I would imagine they are struggling due players based away from Argentina not being available – most of these lads play for Los Jaguares, who will face strong packs but not necessarily international quality scrums – and also due to the move towards a more fluid, expansive game. I’m not blaming the Pumas’ exciting backline – it’s a joy to watch in full flight – but they need to go back to basics and shore up their set piece, otherwise the backs will never have a platform to allow them to reach their full potential. If they can do that… they will be a danger at the World Cup.

Sonny Bill Williams made his first appearance of the tournament yesterday, which just highlights the quality of options available to New Zealand. Through the tournament, Williams, Ryan Crotty, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown have all started in the centre positions. Not many other nations could boast even close to that strength in depth! While both Williams and Crotty played well in this match, I don’t think they provided the same quality of attacking ball that some of the other options have. My personal pick would be to have Laumape at 12, where his physical approach is hard to stop on the gain line, and Goodhue at 13, where he has played a crucial part in a number of breaks while also doing a solid job in defence, something that has been key to Crotty’s selection in the past. Off the bench I would then select Lienert-Brown, who does not always appear to have the best of impacts from the start, but fully takes advantage of gaps left by a tiring defence. With Laumape (25) the oldest of this trio (Williams is 33 and Crotty 30), if they become the main options in the centre now, they will be good enough to potentially win a third successive World Cup and then be reaching their best years as the All Blacks approach RWC2023, much in the way Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith grew together into arguable the best centre pairing of the last 10 years.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 4

It was the weekend for upsets in Round 4 as both New Zealand and Australia came up just short against South Africa and Argentina respectively. The All Blacks could have won the tournament with 2 rounds to spare had they earned a bonus point victory, but they must now go to Argentina on the 29th and try to win there (so it would appear the inevitable has just been delayed), while this is the first time the Pumas have won more than one game per season in this tournament. Australia meanwhile have dropped to 7th in the World rankings, their lowest ever position!


New Zealand 34-36 South Africa

“It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile… winning’s winning” – Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious

The All Blacks shot themselves in the (kicking) foot in this match. While Handrè Pollard was nearly perfect off the tee, Beauden Barret was anything but, having success on only 2/6 kicks while hitting the post on multiple occasions. He may be arguably the best fly half in the world, but his kicking off the tee is erratic at best and nowhere near consistent enough for a Tier 1 team. New Zealand outscored South Africa 6 tries to 2, they carried them 624m to 245m, they beat 39 defenders to the Springboks’ 12 and had 75% of the possession… yet due to Barrett’s questionable kicking they lost by 2 points. Even at the end they should have won it, as they had over 10 phases camped on the South Africa line – many of them with Damian McKenzie in the pocket – but decided to forgo a simple drop goal attempt and spread the ball for a try, knocking on after the hooter had gone. The All Blacks are a wonderful team and a joy to watch, but I would argue that they are not pragmatic enough anymore. They have the ability to run it in from anywhere and will frequently, but with the game on the line, they do not have the rugby brain of a Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson to take the easy 3 points and keep the scoreboard ticking over. If more teams can find a way to score a similar amount of tries, then the All Blacks could be at risk of more losses in the near future.

While I am coming down hard on the All Blacks, it would be remiss of me not to also praise South Africa’s defensive effort. The Springboks made 196/235 tackles (83% success) and refused to give in, even when defending on their line or a man down. Yes they were broken on occasions, but anyone would be against such a good team. The All Blacks handling was poor at time, but I feel this often came from the pressure put on them by the defence, while Cheslin Kolbe intercepted Anton Leinert-Brown early in the second half for a try and Aphiwe Dyantyi (who I’m not sold on defensively if I’m honest) did just enough to fly out the line at the death and force the knock-on from McKenzie to give South Africa the game. I still think they are searching for the right formula in their line-up, but if they can continue to defend so doggedly, the results will keep coming.


Australia 19-23 Argentina

Something is not right in that Australian back line. Marika Koroibete, Israel Folau (at wing) and Dane Haylett-Petty is arguably one of the most dangerous back 3s in world rugby, but they are not getting enough ball aide from countering kicks they have fielded. Matt Toomua as well was pretty much anonymous in this game, other than his kicks at goal and a few other clearances. The midfield is not working at the moment!

Part of this may be down to fatigue, as Toomua has been clocking up the air miles and returning to play for Leicester on the rest weekends. I think that is a ridiculous decision as the extra travel and matches will be fatiguing him and stopping him playing at his best, while increasing his risk of injury.

More than that though, I feel the decision to pick Kurtley Beale at 10 is holding them back. He is a fantastic player and can play the position, but I think he works better in the centre where he has a bit more time and space to work his magic. I applaud the decision to try someone other than Foley at 10 as they need to look at options in case he gets injured, but I don’t think Beale is the option and would rather see Toomua or Hodge given the 10 shirt for the last 2 matches, allowing Beale to move back to centre. This team is not far from being successful and they have the quality of players, they just need to find the right mix.

Argentina are back to their beautiful and dangerous best! Nicolas Sanchez may be easily wound up, but he is one of the most complete packages at 10 in the game currently. The back 3 of Moyano, Boffelli and Delguy is one of the most exciting in international rugby, while Boffelli’s monster boot will punish teams from inside his own half. The scary thing is that players like Santiago Cordero and Joaqin Tuculet could also still come into contention ahead of the World Cup. In the forwards, their discipline seems vastly improved and they are also getting more front foot ball through players like Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, bu8t again can get even stronger when Facundo Isa comes back in the fold.

Like many international teams recently, Argentina looked to hit their low in the Summer Tests against Wales and Scotland but with Mario Ledesma taking charge they are quickly climbing back up the mountain and will be very difficult to beat if they carry on like this.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 3

We are now halfway through the tournament and I think we can give the title to New Zealand. Despite resting a number of players – allowing 2 payers to make their first starts and another to come off the bench for his debut – and losing 2 stars to injury in the opening 10 minutes, the All Blacks face of against a Pumas team that player really well… and still won by 22 points! Meanwhile, Australia had to contend with some late withdrawals and a halftime deficit to score the only points of the second half and get the win.


New Zealand 46-24 Argentina

I wrote recently about the incredible strength in depth the All Blacks have. This match was a prefect example. They lost starters Brodie Retallick and Ngani Laumape to injury within the first 10 minutes and were also without Ben Smith at that point as he went through the HIA process. Despite this, they still managed to come away with a convincing win in their first ever game at Trafalgar Park. As well as some regular bench warmers being given starts – most notably Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea and TJPerenara – Steve Hansen also handed first starts to flanker Shannon Frizell and fly half Richie Mo’unga.

Despite a shaky start – he missed his first penalty to touch – and the early loss of Laumape outside him, Mo’unga had an assured match, kicking 6/7 shots at goal for a personal haul of 14 point while showing a good range of passes and almost sending Jack Goodhue over for a try with a lovely popped pass, which led to Perenara’s try on the next phase. It currently appears that he is competing with Damian McKenzie for the role of Beauden Barrett’s backup. Personally, I’m not a fan of McKenzie at 10 as I feel that he is not able to play the structure game anywhere near as well as he is able to exploit the space by playing 15, so I would love to see Mo’unga given the 10 jersey for the next 3 Tests to give him every chance to grow into the position.

As for Frizell, he was arguably the star of the show. As well as making 16 tackles, the Highlander made 91 metres off 16 carries and was heavily involved in a number of tries (as well as scoring one!) with his strong runs and also his deft hands to play the pivot role in the critical phase that put Nehe Milner-Skudder over in the corner. At just 24 years old, this guy looks to be the future of the 6 jersey and the long-term replacement for Jerome Kaino. Liam Squire has done well at the position and is a more experienced player, but I feel that Frizell had more of an impact on this match than Squire has been having. I would be shocked if Frizell is not the regular starter moving forward.

 

Argentina played a wonderful game. They played some beautiful rugby. They scored some beautiful tries. They lost by 22 points. One of the few areas where the Pumas really struggled in this game was the scrum. Despite not an early change in the second row and Joe Moody being missing, the All Blacks were dominant and Karl Tu’inukuafe especially had success during the game.

Now Argentina certainly wouldn’t have been helped by the loss of Juan Figallo, who is now out until 2019 following an injury playing for Saracens – honestly, the fact that Premiership players are flying all the way back to play for their clubs during rest weeks is ridiculous! – but I don’t think this was all down to just him being missing. Watching the game, I noticed on Twitter some people had noticed the odd way the second rows were binding. Rather than binding with the prop in front through their legs, they were binding on the prop’s outside him. I’ve never tried binding like this but having spent much of my time in the tight five, I can’t see how this knits the scrum together better than the usual binding. With Australia looking good in the scrums this weekend, Argentina need to do some work in practice this week to ensure they can keep things close.


Australia 23-18 South Africa

Following the victory, captain Michael Hooper talked about his team’s resilience to get the victory in this match. Following the initial team announcement, the Wallabies had star David Pocock pull out ahead of the day with a neck injury suffered in Round 2, then Israel Folau and Adam Coleman were announced as also having withdrawn closer to the match.

In the match itself, the team put their issues behind them and put in a dogged defensive display, stopping South Africa from crossing the try line on a number of visits to the 22. Their attack was by no means perfect with Kurtley Beale shifted to 10 and Toomua brought in at 12, but they did enough to hold on for the victory. Special mention needs giving to Taniela Tupou. The Tongan Thor appeared to be injured following a collapsed scrum that left him on his back – having played tight head for years I hate to imagine the shapes his body made to get in that position – yet despite such visible discomfort he held his own an a series of 5m scrums at the death as the Wallabies held on for the win. Having seen the replays of the collapse and the discomfort he was in, I was certain he would have to come off so to see him make it to the end highlighted the resilience of this team on the day. Add back players like Pocock and Folau and get the attack working better, this team can quickly jump to the next level.

 

As resilient as Australia’s defence were, South Africa’s inability to cross the whitewash was costly. After a couple of indifferent matches, Handre Pollard was dropped to the bench and Elton Jantjies given a shot at 10. I have been very clear previously that I am not a fan of Jantjies at all so maybe I am being a bit harsh, but I don’t remember him doing much that had a positive impact on the game – other than his kicks at goal. Though the commentary praised his attempted cross-kick to Aphiwe Dyantyi under penalty advantage, he should have been putting the ball into the in-goal area rather than ahead of the line, which allowed Dane Haylett-Petty the opportunity to come forwards onto the ball and make the catch, while he also put a poor grubber kick over the dead ball line when the Springboks had a spell of pressure 5m out. While I’ve argued for Pollard’s inclusion over that of Janjies, right now I don’t know if either is the right option, so I would suggest another option to Rassie Erasmus.

With just 1 win from 3 and 2 games remaining against New Zealand, I would recommend putting in Damian Willemse at 10, and supporting him by going for Pollard at 12 as a second playmaker. The two of them in midfield, combined with Willie le Roux at 15, could form a devastating triangle of playmakers and finally allow the team to get the best out of their back line. That may be a lot to ask with home and away fixtures coming up against the All Blacks but I think at this point, the most important thing is developing the right players and finding the right squad, so I would go with this regardless of the result as long as the performances are good. Let’s be honest, nobody is beating the Kiwis anytime soon!