Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

The Tri-Nations edition of the Rugby Championship reached its end in Parramatta as hosts Australia took on Argentina. New Zealand’s victory last week meant that – bar the unlikeliest of routs – the 2 teams on show were fighting to finish 2ⁿᵈ, but both teams were coming in looking to finish the tournament on a high.

The Pumas have had a tough week following a heavy defeat and the re-emergence of racist social media posts from 3 players including captain Pablo Matera, but it didn’t seem to affect them on the pitch with their defence being as ferocious as ever in the wet. They found themselves temporarily down to 14 at the quarter-hour mark though, as Marcos Kremer was sent to the bin for a dangerous clean-out on James O’Connor, Reece Hodge kicking the penalty to put the Wallabies ahead. Nicolás Sánchez soon levelled with a penalty of his own from halfway, and just minutes after Kremer returned, it was Australia who had a man sent to the bin, Michael Hooper for the same offence on Sánchez, who was forced off for a HIA. Sánchez’s replacement Domingo Miotti – on for his Test debut – kicked the Pumas into a lead, before the Pumas took advantage of the extra man in the pack, driving a maul from their own 22 up tot he 10m line, before Felipe Ezcurra broke down the blind side and fed Bautista Delguy, who scythed between Hunter Paisami and Marika Koroibete to score the opening try, which Miotti converted. Sánchez returned to the pitch, but the Wallabies had a chance to narrow the gap right before the break with a scrum penalty right under the posts, which Hodge duly kicked for a 6-13 halftime score.

The Aussie comeback continued in the second half with Hodge landing another penalty, but their hopes soon took a hit as replacement Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was sent off on the hour mark for a high tackle on Santiago Grondona, who had to go for a HIA. Miotti, back on the pitch as Sánchez struggled with a niggling injury, kicked the penalty to take the Pumas to 16 points. Australia didn’t give up though and after some sustained pressure, Grondona’s replacement Lucas Paulos was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul after Angus Gardner tired of the Puma’s repeat offending. Australia kicked the penalty to the corner and a well-worked lineout saw captain Hooper driven over for the try, with Reece Hodge converting to level the scores. With just minutes left, Australia earned a penalty wide right just inside the Argentina half and Hodge stepped up to try and win the game, only for his 100% record to disappear as the kick sailed wide right to secure a 16-16 draw. The result means that Argentina and Australia finish on equal points, but points difference gave the Pumas 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings and the Wallabies had to settle for 3ʳᵈ.

Midfield might

Australia were very unlucky to lose their starting 10/12 combo of James O’Connor and Matt To’omua very early in the tournament, with O’Connor only returning in this final game. However, what it did do is open up an early opportunity for some of the youngsters in the squad to shine. None did that more so than Hunter Paisami, who has excelled as a physical presence at 12, becoming a key part of the defence and a solid runner in the channels.

His centre partner in this game, Jordan Petaia, has been less successful. He is an extremely skilled player and stronger than he first looks, but he has looked out of sorts in recent games and lacking in confidence, which is hampering his game. Just in this game alone, he wasted a couple of good attacking opportunities by putting boot to ball.

Once To’omua is back, the Wallabies have a choice to make: do they stick with the risk/reward of Petaia, or do they look at the more defensively secure Paisami? To’omua’s ability as a playmaker would make up for some of the lost attacking flair, but would Paisami find himself more exposed in the 13 channel than he currently is at 12? Thankfully for Dave Rennie, he will have plenty of options when you also consider Reece Hodge and Irae Simone, while Noah Lolesio gaining experience will also allow the option to push O’Connor out to the centres. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a few headaches.

Power pack

On thing that this match really highlighted was the strength in depth of the Pumas in the back 5 of the pack. The apparently ideal back row trio coming into the tournament was Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Rodrigo Bruni, with Matías Alemanno and Guido Petti at lock. However, with Matera and Petti both left out this week following the reveal of racist tweets years ago, Kremer’s versatility was utilised by moving him into the second row, while Facundo Isa and Santiago Grondona came into the back row.

Isa is a fantastic talent who is always going to be fighting with the initial trio for a starting spot in that Pumas back row, and the very best compliment that Grondona can be given is how little his selection instead of Matera – an incredible talent and inspirational leader – appeared to change of affect the Pumas. Even the replacements for this game, Lucas Paulos and Francisco Gorrissen, looked at home on the international stage despite their inexperience.

If a team hopes to go far in a tournament, they need to be able to rotate their squad with minimum drop in quality. Looking at the Pumas’ options in the back 5 of the pack, it’s fair to say that they are setting themselves up nicely with a couple of years still to go until the World Cup.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

A rollercoaster Rugby Championship reached its end for New Zealand as they faced off against Argentina in Newcastle. The All Blacks were coming into the match off the back of losses to Australia and the Pumas, but quickly established themselves as the stronger team in this game, though Jordie Barrett missed an early kick from range and older brother Beauden knocked on at the line after Anton Lienert-Brown stopped the Pumas winning a Richie Mo’unga high ball in their 22. They soon found the breakthrough, though, as they managed to get a touch on Nicolás Sánchez’s attempted clearance to keep the ball in play, and after a series of phases, Mo’unga floated a pass out to Dane Coles to go over in the corner. Mo’unga added the conversion and a penalty, before making a thrilling break and spreading the ball wide to Caleb Clarke, however the wing was not quite able to stay in play as he tried to score in the corner. Mo’unga had one more chance to add o the score before halftime, but the ball came out off the posts and the Pumas were able to clear their lines for a 0-10 halftime deficit.

The second half opened with both sides looking dangerous in attack, but after New Zealand quickly worked their way into the Pumas 22, it took until the 50ᵗʰ minute for them to dot down, though this was denied for a knock-on by Caleb Clarke. The All Blacks won a penalty from the resulting scrum and kicked to the corner, and a clever lineout move by the forwards saw Ardie Savea crash over from close range, Mo’unga adding the extras. The game continued to be a close affair as the substitutions stared en masse, but 2 of the replacements proved key as Santiago Carreras, on at 15 in place of Sánchez, struggled attacking flat to the line and gifted the ball to Will Jordan to run in from halfway twice in 2 minutes to secure a bonus point victory, with Mo’unga adding both conversions. New Zealand thought they had added the cherry to the top of the cake as the lock ticked into the red with Reiko Ioane crossing, but a TMO review instead awarded a penalty to the Pumas and saw Tyrel Lomax sent to the sin bin for a clearout to the head. The Pumas had the chance to kick the ball out and end the game, but instead chose to kick to touch and launch one more attack, however the All Blacks won the ball back and put Patrick Tuipulotu through a gap to add an undeserved shine on the result, Mo’unga adding the 2 points to secure a 0-38 victory that all-but guarantees the All Blacks will win the Tri Nations.

Testing the depth

The Pumas certainly drew the short straw with the fixture scheduling after South Africa pulled out, as they are the only one of the 3 teams involved this year who has to play on 4 consecutive weeks. As such, it was no giant surprise to see a number of changes to the 23, but unfortunately I feel that it proved costly in his match.

In place of the highly experienced prop pairing of Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and Francisco Gómez Kodela, Santiago Medrano (24 years old) and Mayco Vivas (22) were given the start, but they found the All Blacks scrum too much for them to deal with. Obviously the only way they can learn to scrummage at the top level is by putting them into matches like this, but unfortunately it proved costly in this match as their scrum was in almost constant retreat and giving away penalties at an alarming rate, which was gifting New Zealand possession and territory far too often.

As if that wasn’t enough, the number of scrums skyrocketed as a heavily changed back line struggled to create any cohesion, with too many attempts to put a player through a gap resulting in the ball going to floor. This only got worse as Santiago Carreras – who usually plays in the back 3 for Argentina – was brought on at fly half, as he clearly wasn’t comfortable in the position and gifted Will Jordan 2 tries when he tried to play flat to the line and bring the back line into play.

Obviously it was disappointing on the day, but the players will have learned a lot from this match and will benefit from this in the long term. And I’m sure there will be a lot more focus in the coming week on building the chemistry.

Inefficient

A 0-38 victory certainly looks good on paper, but I can’t help feel that anyone who actually watched the match will feel that this didn’t really do much to help Ian Foster’s job security.

When you think of the All Blacks, you think of a team that pounces on your mistakes and exploits them by making the right decisions to score the try. Instead, this game was just another example of blown opportunities from New Zealand.

Beauden Barrett is meant to be one of the best players in the world but couldn’t even hold onto the ball as he crossed the line under pressure from Felipe Ezcurra, while Reiko Ioane may also be thankful that Tyrel Lomax’s indiscretion meant his potential try was not looked at further. Mo’unga created a brilliant chance with his break and wide pass to Clarke (who had already wasted one chance with a knock on 5m from the line), but the winger was then selfish by trying to round the defender himself, rather than holding his line to draw the defence as they rushed across and then feeding the man who was in the process of looping behind him. And then finally in the early minutes of the second half, Anton Lienert-Brown wasted an overlap 5m from the line by playing the ball back inside.

This is not the clinical team that we are used to, this is a bunch of players who have lost direction and were lucky Carreras gifted them 2 tries to make it to the bonus point. New Zealand need to replace Foster with someone who can refresh the team, pick the players on form and get the best out of them. That man is currently at the Crusaders: Scott Robertson. But they will need to move quick as there’s always the chance he could move abroad to take on an international role elsewhere.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

The 2020 Tri Nations edition of the Rugby Championship continued this weekend with Argentina taking on Australia in Newcastle. Both the Wallabies and the Pumas were coming into the match off the back of wins over New Zealand (how often can you say that?!) and it soon became clear that this would be a tight affair.

Fly halves Nicolás Sánchez and Reece Hodge traded penalties early on, before the Wallabies thought they had scored a try as Jordan Petaia dotted down a Hunter Paisami grubber, only for replays to show his toe had touched the dead ball line as he tried to score. The fly halves again traded penalties, and then right at the end of the half Marika Koroibete crossed for a try, which was again disallowed on review as the final pass from Tom Banks went forward. However, they had the penalty advantage and Reece Hodge kicked the 3 points to give them a 6-9 halftime lead.

Argentina’s ill-discipline at the end of the first half had left them on a warning and it soon proved costly as Julián Montoya was shown a yellow card for failing to clearly release the tackled player before going in on the ball. The Wallabies duly kicked the resultant penalty and added another just as the sin bin period came to an end to build a 9-point lead. However the Pumas hit back and as the Wallabies discipline disappeared, Sánchez kicked 3 penalties to draw things level with 10 minutes left. It looked like the Wallabies would get a late winner as Matías Orlando was pinged for playing the ball off his feet with just minutes left, but Reece Hodge picked the wrong moment to lose his 100% kicking record in the match and pushed the kick wide. There was time for just 1 more attack from Australia, but when the Pumas stole the ball at a breakdown, Pablo Matera kicked downfield and Santiago Cordero was first to the bouncing ball, reaching it just before it went into touch. A decent hack on would allow the former Exeter star to fall on the ball over the line for the win, but his soccer skills eluded hi at just the wrong moment and Jake Gordon was able to fall on the loose ball and flop himself into touch just short of the try line to end the game in a 15-15 stalemate that saw both teams go level with New Zealand on 6 points, with points difference leaving the Pumas in 2ⁿᵈ and Australia 3ʳᵈ.

A familiar issue

Australia put up a strong fight against the Pumas. They had the possession and the territory, they even held their own in the scrum for much of the match and caused the Argentinian pack some issues there. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a costly issue that will be very familiar for those who watched Super Rugby AU: the lineout.

Despite playing arguably the best lock pairing in the squad for lineouts, the Wallabies saw a number of chances ended before they had even really began as Brandon Paenga-Amosa – a great hooker in the loose – struggled with his throw. The Wallabies were twice denied a great attacking platform at 5m lineouts, with one being rightly deemed not straight and another stolen by Guido Petti, and they should consider themselves lucky that their last throw of the first half – which set the up for the go-ahead penalty –  wasn’t deemed not straight as it was no different to the earlier call. Sadly they weren’t the only instances, just the ones 5m out from the line, with another lineout on the edge of the 22 stolen and another in a similar area pinged for being not straight.

This isn’t going to be a simple fix by replacing Paenga-Amosa at hooker, as none of the hookers really impressed during the recent domestic tournament. Instead, this unit needs to continue working together and former England lineout specialist Geoff Parling needs to earn his salary working with the pack to fix these issues, otherwise they will always struggle to finish off other Tier 1 nations with an inconsistent set piece.

On target

As picked out by the commentators during the match, Argentina had certainly been doing their homework in regards to how the Wallabies set up to receive kickoffs and devised a good strategy off the restart. Time after time, Nicolás Sánchez targeted Hunter Paisami with their restarts, finding the inside centre and putting pressure on him with the chase.

The logic behind this was clear. Paisami is a strong runner, so having him at the bottom of a ruck takes away one option if the Wallabies want to hit the ball up for a phase to give their kickers a better angle from which to clear the ball. Secondly, as someone more commonly known for his physicality than his kicking game, plonking the ball on his head and forcing him to kick under pressure would likely lead to a decent attacking position, while captain Pablo Matera even managed to charge him down on one occasion to win the Pumas possession in a great position.

Finally, the Wallabies’ set up meant that if Paisami was tackled quickly after catching the kick there would be a great chance of a turnover or Argentinian penalty, as Paisami was largely isolated in his position, with only the diminutive Nic White in a position to support and secure the breakdown – not what you really want with behemoths like the Pumas back row in such fine form.

After such clear targeting, it will be interesting to see if the Wallabies change their formation or positions ahead of the reverse fixture in 2 weeks time.

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Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

As we entered the third week of the Tri Nations edition of the Rugby Championship, Argentina entered the fray in Sydney, facing off against New Zealand.

The All Blacks were putting out what they considered their strongest possible team following last week’s loss to Australia, but after a confrontational opening 15, they found themselves level at 3-3 courtesy of penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Nicolás Sánchez. As the half progressed though, it was the Pumas who found the breakthrough, and when New Zealand failed to cover Sánchez’s chip into their 22, the fly half eventually recovered the ball and crossed under the posts for the opening try, which he converted before adding another penalty to extend the lead. The South Americans’ defence continued to frustrate the All Blacks, and when Tomás Cubelli slipped away at a ruck and fed Juan Imhoff, it took a fantastic last ditch tackle from Aaron Smith to halt the winger and as the phases progressed, Richie Mo’unga managed to hold up the ball as Pablo Matera crossed the try line. The Pumas won a penalty from the resulting scrum however, and Sánchez kicked it through the posts for a 3-16 lead at the break – their highest halftime differential against New Zealand.

The second half began much like the first, with the Argentinian defence holding strong and Sánchez punishing any New Zealand indiscipline with 3 points. However, a strong driving maul from the All Black won them a penalty which they kicked to the corner, and a quick ball to the front caught the Pumas out and allowed Sam Cane to be driven over for a try, converted by Mo’unga. Any hopes of a kiwi comeback were diminished, though, as Sánchez added another penalty while the Pumas defence continued to hold firm, and when Sánchez kicked a 6ᵗʰ penalty with just minutes left, a historic win was confirmed. There was still time for one last hurrah from New Zealand, which earned Caleb Clarke his first Test try, but it was just a consolation and as the Argentine contingent in the crowd made themselves heard, the Pumas were able to celebrate a 15-25 victory – their first ever win over New Zealand.

Back to basics

So many times we have seen the Pumas come out looking to take teams on offensively and falling to a gallant defeat. This was a very different performance however. While their attacking play was limited, their defence was incredible.

Led by flankers Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, and with debutant Santiago Chocobares at 12, the defence was near-perfect, with barely a tackle missed all game and a strong team effort meaning that though the All Blacks may make metres and occasionally get through the first line, they very rarely looked a threat.

And everywhere else on the pitch, they just did the basics right, playing a good territorial game and being reliable at their own set piece while causing issues for New Zealand on opposition ball. And more than anything, they showed desire, fighting for everything and standing up for their teammates – epitomised by captain Matera from first minute to last.

You could see how much this meant to the Pumas at the end, and by simply doing the basics, they were fully deserving of the win.

Change or be changed?

While doing the basics right was key to this win for the Pumas, for so long that was just a prerequisite to having a chance to beat the All Blacks. This team looks a shadow of their former selves under Ian Foster and with his opening 5 games now resulting in just 2 wins, a draw and 2 losses, things don’t look good. This is the first time the All Blacks have lost consecutive games since 2011, and considering they have come against an inexperienced, rebuilding Australia and an Argentina team whose players have barely played since the outbreak of COVID-19, you can’t help think that their final match in the tournament against Argentina could decide if Foster keeps his job.

And for that reason, Foster needs to throw caution to the wind and pick on form rather than the tried and tested he has gone for in his so-called “strongest XI” of late. Hoskins Sotutu needs to be given the start and fellow Blues back rowers Dalton Papali’i and Akira Ioane should be joining him and Sam Cane in the 23. Beauden Barrett needs dropping  from the XV so that Jordie Barrett can play 15 and Mo’unga needs to be allowed to play his natural game like we see at the Crusaders. Ngani Laumape needs to be given the 12 shirt as he is a game-changing talent, while Reiko Ioane at 13 will create a match-up nightmare, while Caleb Clarke and Jordie Barrett should be joined in the back 3 by Will Jordan, who was one of the form players in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Will this be enough to save Ian Foster’s job? Only time will tell.

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The RWC2019 Debrief: Argentina

The RWC2019 Debrief: Argentina

Welcome to a new series of articles, the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Argentina.

RWC2019 Qualification

The Pumas qualified for the tournament automatically by finishing in the top 3 of their pool in 2015, in fact they went all the way to the semi-finals, eventually finishing 4th overall.

2019 Form

It hadn’t been a good year for the Pumas. They came bottom of the shortened Rugby Championship, losing all 3 games including a 13-46 humbling at home to South Africa. Their losing streak continued in their final warm-up game against South Africa in Pretoria.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool C)
    • France 23-21 Argentina
    • Argentina 28-12 Tonga
    • England 39-10 Argentina
    • Argentina 47-17 USA

The poor form continued into the opening match against France as Les Bleus ran out to an early lead. Though the team fought their way back into the match they fell just short, with a late long range penalty from Emiliano Boffelli just missing. They started strongly against Tonga, scoring 28 points in the opening 28 minutes, but allowed Tonga to get back into the game and can consider themselves lucky that a penalty try was not awarded right before halftime when Tomás Lavanini stopped a try with what appeared to be a clear no-arms tackle. Lavanini was however rightly penalised for a high shot on Owen Farrell early on against England, earning a red card that quickly ended the match as a contest. With the quarterfinals already mathematically beyond their reach, the Pumas made some changes for their final match against the USA and it looked like they played with more freedom. In a performance more akin to what we have come to expect from the Jaguares in Super Rugby, the team put the Americans to the sword to end a disappointing tournament on a positive.

Before the tournament, there was a lot of talk about the exclusion of Santiago Cordero, Juan Imhoff and Facundo Isa as they were based in Europe. It certainly felt like they were missed through this tournament as the pack often struggled to get on the front foot, while the backs often appeared to lack any spark, something that Cordero would have given them. Selection questions continued for me as Bautista Delguy was barely used in the early matches despite having been one of their star players before his injury, while Jerónimo de la Fuente and Matías Orlando looked solid but unspectacular. Nicolás Sánchez looked far from his best until the match against the USA, while Benjamín Urdapilleta struggled heavily against England behind an outnumbered pack.

Even coming into the tournament, I had a feeling that the team was tired. With the majority of the players being part of the Jaguares team that went all the way to the Super Rugby final, there has been very little break for them in 2019 as they went from Super Rugby to the Rugby Championship, then the warm-up game in Pretoria and straight into the World Cup. Travelling frequently between Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and finally Japan will be extremely fatiguing and I think it led to a largely worn out team playing in the key matches.

Looking Ahead

While the tournament will not be one the team looks back on fondly, the final match against the USA was a timely reminder that there are good signs for the future. This squad has a core of stars coming through who are 27 or under, many of whom already have a significant number of caps to their name, while other stars for the future like Mayco Vivas, Delguy and Santiago Carreras have been exposed to the World Cup stage. 2 of their most notable individual performances came from Juan Cruz Mallia (23) and Julián Montoya (25 during the tournament), while captain Pablo Matera is just 26 and star lock Guido Petti is only 24. This is a team that should be building around the young talent over the next few years. The key now is finding a young fly half to build around. Both Sánchez and Urdapilleta are in their 30s and unlikely to still be around come the next tournament, so 23-year-old Domingo Miotti of the Jaguares appears to be the next man up and he needs to become a regular fixture soon in order to cement his place in the squad.

Playing home and away against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia is going to give their place in the rankings a hit, but to regularly play against some of the best will help the team improve. The important thing for them now is to widen the fields for selection. If they continue to select predominantly from in Argentina, they are currently limited to picking form just 1 top tier team: the Jaguares. This will continue to lead to issues of players being overworked and coming into the World Cup fatigued, while also creating a limited pathway for younger players coming through. The team needs to widen their scope to select European-based players if their form deserves it, or find a way to get another Argentinian franchise into Super Rugby, which considering the tournament is about to cut another team seems unlikely any time soon.

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

We are mere days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Today, we’re moving onto Pool C

England

As someone who can’t go a day without talking English/Premiership rugby, it wasn’t easy for me to figure out who would be the lesser-known players in the England squad. I eventually settled on Joe Cokanasiga, who at 21 years old and with just 2 seasons of Premiership Rugby under his belt is still relatively unknown. While many of the England back 3 are fast, agile but not overly physical players, Cokanasiga relishes in the physical game while also having the speed to trouble defences. Assuming the defenders manage to successfully tackle him, they then have to hope he doesn’t get the offload away. With tries against Japan and Australia in the 2018 November Tests, expect to see him adding to that list during the tournament.

France

While Antoine Dupont deserves a mention, I’ve picked Damian Penaud here for Les Bleus. Capable of playing centre but often used on the wing for the national team, Penaud has 2 tries from 11 Test matches, including 2 in this year’s Six Nations. He really appeared to come into his own down the stretch for Clermont however, and I expect him to be even better now with more experience under his belt… assuming the rest of the team perform.

Argentina

Argentina are spoiled for choice in the outside backs, but one player who looked to have all-but secured his spot in the XV before injury was winger Bautista Delguy. At just 22 years old, the winger already has 5 tries from 11 caps, including 3 from 5 Rugby Championship appearances. Argentina will create chances but don’t always have the composure to finish them. Delguy on the wing gives them that.

USA

Having won the Pro12 with Connacht and spent 3 seasons with Sale, AJ MacGinty still goes relatively under the radar, but my pick here instead goes to Joe Taufete’e. The Worcester hooker has found himself stuck behind Jack Singleton in recent seasons, but has shown his quality for the Eagles with 20 tries from 22 appearances, making him the tight 5 player with the most international tries. With experience of his English opponents and a strong runner with ball in hand, Taufete’e is one of the players leading USA rugby into a new era.

Tonga

At 31 years old, Sione Kalamafoni is a well-established player, but despite plenty of years in the Premiership with Gloucester and Leicester, is someone who goes relatively under the radar. Kalamafoni has vital experience to help Tonga in a tough pool, while he will tackle all… day… long. On top of that, he also has a good turn of pace in the loose that will catch the opposition out if they leave him too much space.

Who are you looking out for during the tournament?


I’m running a fantasy rugby league for the World Cup on the Rugby Magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6

Will you be picking any of these players in your squad?

Eyes On: South Africa v Argentina – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: South Africa v Argentina – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After winning the Rugby Championship in Salta last weekend, South Africa returned to Pretoria to take on Argentina in a World Cup warm-up match against Argentina. Last week, the Pumas were annihilated at home, but as both teams fielded heavily changed lineups this week, we had a much closer affair. S’busiso Nkosi put the Springboks ahead, only for an intercept try by Guido Petti to give the Pumas an 8-10 halftime lead. Nkosi and Matera traded second half tries to keep things close. With just a few minutes left and South Africa just 3 points ahead, Argentina scored through Lucas Mensa, only for the try to be disallowed for an obstruction early in the attack. Elton Jantjies kicked the resultant penalty to secure the win by a scoreline of 24-18.

South Africa

Having missed the Rugby Championship through injury, this match mas notable as the return to international rugby of Springboks captain Siya Kolisi. In a 53-minute appearance, the openside put in a timely reminder of just how important he is to the team, before we even account for his leadership skills. Off of just 3 carries, Kolisi made 14 metres and put the Springboks on the front foot, while defensively he made 6 tackles, with none missed and was unfortunate to be penalised for taking out the 9 at one breakdown where replays suggested that Felipe Ezcurra had already picked up the ball.

Most importantly though, he did not look at all out of place or off the pace despite having not played a match since May and he looks certain to reclaim the South African 6 jersey come the World Cup.

Argentina

The Pumas came so close to winning this match, but eventually were denied by a penalty that wrote off what would have been the winning try. While it was a disappointing way to end the competition (I think it was the right call, but I have also seen more deliberate and blatant obstructions allowed), it was a perfect way to sum up the game for Argentina.

ESPN’s stats page says that the Pumas conceded 11 penalties through the game and while they don’t break it down between the halves, I am comfortable in saying that the vast majority of those penalties – not to mention a couple of free kicks at scrum time – came in the first half. Giving away so many penalties in the first half stopped them from impacting the game as they were constantly finding themselves forced to defend back in their own half; once they cut down on the penalties in the second half it became more of a contest.

While Argentina are in a bad run of form and find themselves in a tough pool, their main rivals, England and France, both have a tendency to give away more penalties than a Tier 1 team should be, very similar to Argentina. If the Pumas can improve their discipline, it could potentially be the key to making it through to the quarterfinals.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

As well as the returning Kolisi, I think captain for the day Schalk Brits put in a strong performance with a couple of good runs and completing 17/18 tackles, while he was also very accurate at the lineout. I doubt that he will move ahead of Malcolm Marx or Bongi Mbonambi on the depth chart, but it was a timely reminder of his qualities and his playing style may get him on the plane as an extra option to allow the regular starter some time off. S’busiso Nkosi has often disappeared from games over the last months, only to suddenly appear with one impressive run for a try. This happened twice in this game with 2 very well taken tries, while he finished with 67 metres made and 5 defenders beaten from 5 runs. For the Pumas, debutant Lucas Mensa did not appear overawed at all on his first debut, putting in a solid performance and almost scoring the winning try, while Castres stand-off Benjamín Urdapilleta appeared to bring more to the Argentine attack after his introduction.

While Urdapilleta took his chance well, starting fly half Joaquín Díaz Bonilla once again failed to get anything going in attack and also struggled to organise the team structure before he was replaced. Bautista Delguy has not made it back into the Argentina squad since his season was derailed by injury despite a number of tries in the Currie Cup for the Jaguares XV. With Sebastián Cancelliere starting and Santiago Carreras coming off the bench for his debut, it’s looking like Delguy could find himself on the wrong side of the cut when the 31-man World Cup squad is named. For the Boks, Thomas du Toit has fallen down the pecking order over the last 10 months and I don’t think there was much in this case to help his case, as he failed to replicate the scrum dominance that South Africa boasted last week, while a failed HIA for Marcell Coetzee harmed his chances of making it into a strong back row.


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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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RWC2019: Predicting the Argentina Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Argentina Squad

With club rugby over for another season, the thoughts of many fans have been turning towards the upcoming World Cup and the squads that their teams will be selecting. However, for the teams of the Rugby Championship, their focus has had to be initially on a shortened version of their annual tournament.

The Jaguares only formed 4 years ago, but this season was by far their most successful to date as they went all the way to the Super Rugby final, where they lost to a strong Crusaders side. This team is the home of the vast majority of the Argentina squad as in recent years coaches have tried to only pick players playing within Argentina, but they have relaxed the rule of late and coach Mario Ledesma has said that he will pick overseas-based players if he does not feel that he has sufficient cover from within Argentina.

As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series with predictions of each 31-man squad for the Rugby Championship teams, starting with the Pumas. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, taking into account the players selected and performances from the first 2 rounds of competition, while also looking at some notable names who are not included but could come into consideration. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Ledesma will pick, which is why you may see a couple of notable overseas players miss out.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I predict that Ledesma’s 31-man World Cup squad will be:

Hooker

Argentina have only taken 2 hookers in their last 2 World Cup squads, so I can’t see that changing here. Santiago Socino has become eligible after moving back to Argentina and made his debut off the bench against Australia, but I think it will be too late for him to beat out the pairing of Agustin Creevy and Julián Montoya.

Prop

Such has been the quality of Juan Figallo for club and country, I am confident that he will be considered despite playing overseas. Santiago Medrano is the incumbent home-based player at tighthead, so I see him being comfortably in the squad too. On the loosehead side, Argentina have recently relied on Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro as their starter, while Mayco Vivas appears to have edged ahead of Santiago Garcia Botta. The Jaguares scrum has not always been the most reliable this year and Figallo appeared to struggle against Argentina, so I think Ramiro Herrera will also travel to bring greater experience and options to the position.

Second Row

The Pumas have generally taken 4 locks to recent World Cups, but from the squad they have picked for the Rugby Championship, I can imagine them making do with 3 specialists and then having some cover from the back row. If this is the case, then Lucas Paulos is the unfortunate player who misses out in favour of the more experienced trio of Guido PettiTomás Lavanini and Matías Alemanno, who have been the ones involved through the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship.

Back Row

The last 2 World Cups have seen Argentina take 6 back rowers, but I think that this year the number will be 7 as Marcos Kremer travels as cover for both the back row and second row positions. Pablo Matera is a clear pick as he has developed into one of the best flankers in world rugby and starred in the Super Rugby final, while Juan Manuel LeguizamónJavier Ortega DesioTomás Lezana and Rodrigo Bruni bring a good balance of recent success with the Jaguares and international experience. This leaves one spot, which I feel will be taken by Facundo Isa, whose international career stalled following a move to France but he looked at home on his return to international rugby and can join Matera to create the basis of a devastating back row.

Scrum Half

The Pumas have only taken 2 players at this position to the last 2 World Cups, which will lead to a difficult decision for Ledesma. Tomás Cubelli looks nailed on for the squad having played the vast majority of minutes over the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship. Martín Landajo’s move to Harlequins this summer probably hinders his chances of travelling to Japan. I initially had Gonzalo Bertranou taking the second spot given his greater international experience, but it looks like Felipe Ezcurra has skipped ahead of him in the pecking order and despite limited minutes in the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship, he set a good tempo against Australia and also won a penalty with a strong jackal.

Fly Half

Despite having moved to France, Nicolás Sánchez is easily the best option at fly half and I imagine that he will continue to lead the backs through this tournament. Hem may not have had the best of matches in the Super Rugby final, but Joaquín Díaz Bonilla has done a fine job of helping the Jaguares to their best ever finish so looks to be Sánchez’s backup at the position. Though recent World Cup squads have only included 2 fly halves, I don’t think either of the above players have excelled so far in the Rugby Championship, so I think he may take another experienced option here in the form of Benjamín Urdapilleta.

Centre

Jerónimo De La Fuente and Matías Orlando have been a starring midfield for the Jaguares and regular partners for the Pumas too, so they are the clear picks here. Beyond that, I have gone for Matías Moroni, who has split his recent international career between wing and outside centre, and Juan Cruz Mallía, who can also provide cover at 15 if needed.

Back 3

This leaves space for 5 players in the back 3, which makes things more difficult for the European-based Santiago Cordero and Juan Imhoff, such is the strength available at the position. Bautista Delguy (currently playing for Jaguares XV in the Currie Cup after recently recovering from a season-ending injury), Emiliano Boffelli and Ramiro Moyano made a fine trio over the last year, while Joaquín Tuculet has the class and experience to potentially demote one of them to the bench. The final position was initially going to the versatile Sebastián Cancelliere, but he misses out after not featuring in the first 2 rounds of the Rugby Championship. His place instead goes to Santiago Cordero, who was given the full 80 minutes against Argentina and also has the benefit of excelling at wing or fullback, which could prove useful as the games come thick and fast.

Who do you think will make it to Japan?


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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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