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!


 

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 2

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 2

We may only be a third of the way through the tournament, but it would take a brave/foolish person to bet against New Zealand winning another title again. On the occasion of Owen Franks’ 100th Tests cap, the All Blacks romped away to a 40-12 victory over Australia to Ensure they keep hold of the Bledisloe Cup for another year, while Argentina got their first win under Mario Ledesma at home to South Africa.


New Zealand 40-12 Australia

Despite having considerably less registered players than England, South Africa and France (according to World Rugby’s latest data), the depth of the all Blacks has been incredible! Though they have been far from perfect, they have ran out comfortable victors both weeks against Australia. Even crazier is that they are doing this with Scott Barrett – probably their star player in the Summer Tests – back on the bench now that Brodie Retallick has returned. The loss of Ryan Crotty last week has not seemed to have an impact on the team as Jack Goodhue has been impressive at 13, while Ngani Laumape (who was not even in the original squad) had an increasing impact on the game as the match went on. Reiko Ioane was barely missed either, as Ben Smith moved to the win and Jordie Barrett deputised at fullback. Even crazier is that Richie Mo’unga, who has just led the Crusaders to back-to-back Super Rugby titles, has not even made the matchday 23 for either of the last 2 matches! Even with Julian Savea now out of the picture, stars like Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ben Lam are unable to make the 23 either! Even Dane Coles could struggle to get his place back in the starting XV once he is available, such has been the form of Codie Taylor – though a bit more reliability is needed currently in the lineout. I wrote last week about Australia possibly coming undone with a couple of injuries to key players; I can’t see this happening any time soon with New Zealand.

Looking at the Australia 23 on paper, that is a strong squad. Despite Israel Folau’s absence, there is plenty of skill and experience in a back line containing Will Genia, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beala Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete. In the forwards, Australia have 2 of the best jackals currently in rugby in the form of experienced duo Michael Hooper and David Pocock and a good blend of youth and experience. And yet for all this, they never looked to have a shot of winning once we got into the second half. They conceded 6 tries on the day but it could have been so much worse as Beauden Barrett had a try disallowed for a knock-on in the build-up, a forward pass from Laumape denied Waisake Naholo a late try and a wonderful last-ditch tackle from Foley put Jordie Barrett into touch just short of the line.

It just felt like there was something wrong with the system Australia were playing. 13 is such a difficult position to play defensively and Reece Hodge was caught out on a number of occasions in only his 2nd Test match in that position. Kurtley Beale also began struggling against Laumape in the second half. Yet despite this, Matt Toomua was kept on the bench until the 65th minute, by which point the game was over. Australia also butchered one of the biggest ovrlaps I’ve seen after winning the ball back on the New Zealand line in the left corner, hitting it up through the forwards for multiple phases when there had been 7 men free outside New Zealand’s widest defender Brodie Retallick. Something really needs changing ahead of the next round and I would suggest starting Toomua. The Leicester centre is a more physical player than Beale, and has a range of kicking and passing to be an effective playmaker in midfield. If Folau is still unavailable for the next game, Cheika could do much worse than moving Hodge to the wing in place of Jack Maddocks (who was largely anonymous in his first start) and bringing Toomua into the centre.


Argentina 32-19 South Africa

Argentina are back! They have looked so much better under Ledesma in the last 2 weeks than they did under Hourcade in the summer. Nicolas Sanchez looked a shadow of the player we know him to be against Wales and Scotland, but he ran things for the Pumas in this match and had a full house of try, conversion, penalty and drop goal by half time on the way to a personal tally of 17 points in this match. With Sanchez impressing, the back line are firing on all cylinders again, with them working overlaps for Ramiro Moyano’s try and both of Bautista Delguy’s. They are by no means perfect yet and were let off by South Africa on a number of occasions, but the signs of improvement are clear and by the World Cup they could be a real threat again.

After a number of improvements under Rassie Erasmus, this match was a real step back for the Springboks. They completed only 64% of their tackles as they were frequently caught out when Argentina spread the ball wide. In attack, they missed some great chances, with Lukhanyo Am’s forward pass denying Aphiwe Dyantyi a try, while I found myself yelling at the screen when Faf de Klerk looked for a runner to an empty blind side to the left of a ruck, only to have to go back to the open side as nobody else reacted to the opportunity. There were some wonderful moments in attack, often from de Klerk and Willie le Roux again, but they just weren’t accurate enough. Add to that Eben Etzebeth’s yellow card for cynically slowing down a breakdown on the South African line and they were always up against it against an Argentina side that seemed to grow in confidence following 2 quick tries. Handre Pollard appears to be the best option at 10, but his goal kicking has been unreliable so far this tournament and I would recommend giving de Klerk kicking duties and allowing Pollard to focus on the rest of the game. I would love to see Damian Willemse given some starts at 10 with Pollard outside him at 12, but considering Argentina would usually be considered the 2 easiest matches, I think this tournament will be more about establishing the best XV and then using the Autumn Internationals to give less experienced players a chance.


Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 1

The 7th edition of the annual Rugby Championship got underway this weekend and I doubt it will shock anyone to see New Zealand take an early lead in the tournament. The All Blacks may not be at their strongest but this is still a team that looks likely to finish the tournament undefeated. They played against an Australian team who handed debuts off the bench to Jermaine Astley and Jack Maddocks, while also welcoming back Premiership starts Tatafu Polota-Nau and Matt Toomua. Following a recent change in selection criteria, Saracens’ Juan Figallo was also back in action, playing for an Argentinian team entering a new era with Mario Ledesma at the helm, while Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux also continued their run in the South Africa team that started against England, joined once again by Bath’s Francois Louw.

 


Australia 13-38 New Zealand

Are Australia relying too much on the same players? I was thinking during the match that Bernard Foley has become an ever-present in this team recently and, with Quade Cooper out of the picture, I was struggling to pick who would be second choice behind him. Israel Folau is another player who is an ever-present when fit and I can’t help but wonder if the lack of variation in the playing squad could come back to haunt them come the World Cup, especially when you see New Zealand spreading appearances around a selection of players. It appears that my thoughts were timely as Folau limped off injured and it has since been announced that he will be missing he reverse at Eden Park.

So what are the options at 10 and 15? Well I think the most obvious options at 10 were the guys playing just outside Foley at the weekend: Kurtley Beale and Reece Hodge. Beale has the all-round skill-set to play at 10 but I think he thrives a bit further out at international level. Reece Hodge’s long-range kicking will always keep him in or around this starting line-up due to Foley’s limited range. With his versatility, he has become the Adam Ashley-Cooper of the team, playing wherever he is needed, but I think he and the Wallabies could benefit from him moving to the fly half position, where he has been playing regularly for Melbourne Rebels. He is strong enough to defend the 10 channel so would not have to be hidden on the wing in defence like Foley was on Saturday, while there would not be much of a drop in kicking percentages as he is solid off the tee with a larger range. Moving him to 10 would also allow Beale/Toomua to be partnered in midfield by Samu Kerevi/Tevita Kuridrani to give the balance of playmaking and strong running, while also allowing Cheika to continue picking specialist players in the back 3. At 15, the obvious choice would be Dane Haylett-Petty, who has deputised there during Folau’s previous absences, but Jack Maddocks looked good on his debut and Beale could again be a danger picking his lines from further back. There are plenty of options available and while I appreciate nobody wants to lose a Bledisloe Cup match, there are only a handful of matches remaining before the World Cup. Previous World Cups have seen teams suffer multiple injuries all at the same position – think back to Stephen Donald’s appearance on the bench in the 2011 final. I’m sure Michael Cheika would rather be able to turn to seasoned veterans than a bunch of rookies.

As much as I expect New Zealand to remain unbeaten, they looked anything but unbeatable at the weekend. Their lineout was turned over far too often and the number of handling errors was unbelievable. And yet they still won comfortably, scoring 6 tries in the process. The reason: they were clinical when the chances appeared. Their opener came from a simple missed tackle on Ben Smith, the next a turnover by Waisake Naholo that was spread to the far wing where there was space, the third a knock on by Dane Haylett-Petty that Beauden Barrett fly hacked on and controlled over the line. Even the next try, New Zealand took advantage of the space caused by Folau leaving the pitch injured while play was still going. Though they may not be as consistently great in attack as they were a few years back, they are solid in defence even when Ryan Crotty is unavailable and have the ability to cut apart a team when given the opportunity. This team look like they could be beaten, but whoever beats them will need to be switched on for every second of the 80 minutes and minimise the errors.


South Africa 34-21 Argentina

South Africa are back on the up! After a torrid couple of years under Allister Coetzee, Rassie Erasmus appears to be getting the team back on track just in time for the World Cup. England and Argentina, plus and understrength Wales, may not have been the sternest of tests, but the signs are good so far. It does not surprise me either that part of this turnaround includes starring roles from Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, both of whom have been revitalised playing in England. De Klerk has impressed me so much in recent internationals with his quick ball, eye for a gap (see his snipe to the line for South Africa’s last try) and his attacking box kicks that led to Aphiwe Dyantyi’s second try. Le Roux takes so much pressure off the fly half by becoming a second playmaker, he is dangerous collecting the high ball (though he failed to collect the bomb that led to Nicolas Sanchez’s try), targets the 13 channel and has a great range of passing and kicking – just look at his inch-perfect crosskick for Dyantyi’s opener. Similar to Australia though, they need to find some depth at key positions like fly half. Elton Jantjies has never convinced me when given the chance and I don’t feel he can be a long-term option. As such, it was good to see Damian Willemse come on for his debut at 10 with Pollard moved to 12 in order to support him. Japan 2019 may be a bit too soon for him to take the reins, but if he continues to get gametime in the competition then he could have a big impact on the biggest stage.

Though they may have conceded 6 tries, this performance from the Pumas was a far cry from the embarrassment of the Summer Tests. Despite being mainly the same players, this squad looked much more switched on and energised under Ledesma than in the final days of Daniel Hourcade’s reign. Nicolas Sanchez looked miles better than in the summer and the team looked dangerous after South Africa took an early lead. There is still a long way to go, as they were often caught out wide by the Springboks, but early signs are good for a team that appear close to welcoming back Europe-based stars like Facundo Isa and Juan Imhoff.