2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

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

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

He’s back!

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

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

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

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

Broken down

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

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

Tipping the balance

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

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

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

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v New Zealand

After a few weeks of wondering what involvement New Zealand would have in the remainder of this season’s Rugby Championship, the All Blacks were back in action facing Australia in Perth for the third and final Bledisloe Cup game of the season. With the All Blacks having already secured the Bledisloe Cup for another year by winning the first 2 fixtures, the timing of this third Test at such an early stage of the Rugby Championship meant that there was still plenty to play for.

This game saw the first appearance of Samu Kerevi in a Test since the Rugby World Cup as part of a relaxation of the Giteau Law, and for a moment it looked like it ha proved an immediate boon as he broke from a ruck deep inside his own half before feeding Marika Koribete to just get over the line just minutes in, only for the try to be ruled out as a TMO referral rightly adjudged that he had been a part of the ruck and therefore not in a legal position to pick up the ball. While the Wallabies had a couple of early attacking opportunities, it was the All Blacks who looked more dangerous, and after Beauden Barrett opened the scoring with a pair of penalties, they found the opening try on 17 minutes. In what appeared to be a planned move, Beauden Barrett slotted a grubber kick through the midfield defensive line, which Will Jordan ran onto, quickly feeding the ball to Brad Weber as he realised Tom Banks had committed by coming up for the grubber. Weber took the ball on and after drawing the covering Noah Lolesio, he released fullback Jordie Barrett for an easy jog beneath the posts. Barrett’s game would soon have an early end , though, as just before the half hour mark he went up for a high ball, but as his leg shot our to keep his balance, he caught Marika Koroibete in the head and was sent off. The extra space created by Barrett’s dismissal allowed Australia to be a bit more expansive with their attacking, and after a series of offloads helped the Wallabies make their way into the New Zealand 22 and earn a penalty advantage, Noah Lolesio kicked to the corner, where Andrew Kellaway outjumped Anton Lienert-Brown but failed to secure the ball. The penalty advantage meant that they ha another chance though, and after kicking to the corner and winning the lineout, Koroibete went over as part of the maul, only to be denied again as the TMO picked up that he had gone to ground with the ball earlier in the maul and got back to his feet, thereby being adjudged a double movement. With the half coming to an end, the missed chances from Australia were compounded after a series of penalties beginning with the double movement took the All Blacks from their own 5m line to a lineout 15m from the Australian line, and when they won the ball and got the drive going, David Havili joined the forwards in their push and found himself with the ball as they crossed the line, dropping down for the try and a 0-18 halftime lead.

With the second half starting and the clock ticking down on Australia’s numerical advantage—due to the Rugby Championship using the law trials that include allowing a replacement to be brought on 20 minutes after a red card—the Wallabies knew that they needed to begin taking their chances, and looked like they may be in as Samu Kerevi stripped Scott Barrett of possession and saw the ball quickly spread to Andrew Kellaway, only for the wing to be chased down by Reiko Ioane. With the 20 minute red card period coming to an end, Damian McKenzie came onto the pitch, but Australia finally found themselves converting a chance despite the even numbers, as Tate McDermott sniped from a ruck deep into the 22, and after a couple of phases kept New Zealand on the back foot, Samu Kerevi twice popped up at acting scrum half to keep the ball quick before sending Folau Fainga’a over to finally get them on the scoresheet. However, any Australian hopes of momentum swinging in their favour were soon dashed as they kicked a goal-line drop-out (another of the law variations) only just beyond their 22, and when New Zealand spread the ball wide to the right, Akira Ioane bumped off a blitzing Koribete, fended off Len Ikitau and dummied Lolesio before drawing the cover and feeding Will Jordan for the easiest of finishes. As the game continued to open up, Lolesio broke deep into the New Zealand half, but the Wallabies tried forcing things with the wrong personnel in place and Matt Philip’s pass to Fainga’a was intercepted by David Havili, who ran it all the way back to give the All Blacks another try. Just minutes later, it looked like they had another long range run-in as Beauden Barrett released McKenzie with a switch out wide, only for replays to show that McKenzie fumbled the pass and only recovered it after in bounced off the offside Barrett. This reprieve, combined with some substitutions, appeared to reignite the Wallabies, and when Pete Samu sniped down the blind side of a ruck, he was able to feed the newly-introduced Nic White for an immediate try. However the All Blacks were still looking dangerous when given any possession in the Wallabies half, and when some quick hands from Will Jordan left a blitzing Koribete in no-man’s land, Akira Ioane made it close to the try line before feeding Anton Lienert-Brown to crash over, while George Bridge completed the scoring for New Zealand just minutes later as TJ Perenara intercepted Rob Valentini’s offload to Reece Hodge, drew all the covering defenders as he scampered up to halfway, before kicking into wide open space, with the ball holding up perfectly for the replacement wing. With just a handful of minutes left, a Bledisloe Cup clean sweep was confirmed for the All Blacks, but the Wallabies did manage the last word as Nic White ran lateral off the back of a ruck trying to find a gap, before feeding Tom Banks on the switch to crash over from close range, giving the fulltime score a slightly more respectable look at 21-38. With a bonus point from each of their victories over the Wallabies, the All Blacks leapfrog World Champions South Africa to go top of the table, while Australia find themselves bottom of the table after 2 rounds on points difference.

A welcome return

This was a match of note for fans of Australian rugby, as it saw a slight relaxing of the Giteau Law that only allows overseas-based players to feature for the Test team if they have accrued at least 60 caps and 7 years of playing Super Rugby in Australia. For this match 2 players who don’t fit those criteria were allowed to join the squad, namely Japan-based Samu Kerevi, who started at 12, and replacement lock Izack Rodda, who is returning from Lyon to join the Western Force.

While Rodda’s impact was limited in this match, Kerevi was heavily involved in many of Australia’s best moments, carrying hard and on good lines to great effect. While Hunter Paisami has been growing into his role as the more physical centre, Kerevi is in his prime years and also has the Test experience that this rebuilding Wallabies side so desperately needs. Even just having another player like him in the Tests squad will be so important for the younger players, while also increasing the depth the Wallabies have in midfield when everyone is available.

While I can understand that Australian Rugby wants to keep it’s big names in the country, the career of a professional rugby player is hard and relatively short, so if they can’t make the same money at home as they can abroad then they should not be penalised. By allowing the big names to go abroad, it allows the next generation to come through and gain plenty of top flight experience earlier in their career, which will surely only add more depth to the national team in the long run. Just imagine what Matt Philip and Darcy Swain will learn from playing and training beside players like Rodda and Will Skelton, while players in other top flight leagues could also be developing skills different to those playing Super Rugby, which could add another dimension to the national team’s tactics.

Hopefully with this relaxation, we are seeing the first steps towards either abolishing the rule altogether or reducing the criteria to make more overseas players eligible.

Too much too soon

Imagine being just 21 years old and already the starting fly half for a Tier 1 nation who faces the All Blacks 3 times a year. Well that’s the situation for Noah Lolesio. The young Brumbies stand-off is a clearly talented player, but I can’t help feel that there is too much pressure being put on young shoulders right now.

With the back line picked to face the All Blacks this weekend, Lolesio was left as the sole playmaker in the starting XV, but also the only goal kicker. Now Lolesio’s goal kicking has not been great of late, and this was just another example, with him missing a 3-pointer in the first half that international goal kickers should be nailing in their sleep under normal conditions. That’s got to be knocking his confidence, and yet he also has the pressure of running the team.

Personally, I think that at this stage in his Test career, Lolesio would benefit from having a second playmaker in the lineup, either in the centre as Matt To’omua often is, or at fullback, where Reece Hodge would be an option. Not only could they take over the goal-kicking duties and allow Lolesio to focus on running the game, but they would also be able to provide support in open play and also to allow him the flexibility to attack with ball in hand himself without the team losing all shape.

Hopefully with the new format Super Rugby Pacific next season, Lolesio will begin to see more regular action against higher quality opposition. Combine that with Tests against a slightly more forgiving opposition and hopefully we will see Lolesio develop into the star he looks like he can be. However if not given support, he may find himself in trouble.

Opportunity knocks

While I’m still not sure that Ian Foster is the right man at the helm of the team, one thing that can’t really be argued is that there is no more dangerous team on the transition than New Zealand. What do I mean by “on the transition”? I mean that moment when the ball gets turned over and New Zealand transition from defence to attack.

While so many teams will use a turnover as an opportunity to either secure possession by keeping things close for a few phases or secure territory by kicking in behind a team that isn’t set to defend a kick, the All Blacks will frequently look to exploit the opposition defence not being set by immediately moving the ball away from the point of contact and finding a spot either in the midfield or out wide where they can have a back or a back row exploiting the space around a forward who has been caught out of position. In doing so, they can get over the gain line and in behind the opposition defence, where there will then only be maybe a couple of players able to chase back or cover across. Meanwhile, the team trusts the ability of their players to make the break, which means that when they get through and draw whatever cover is left, they have so many players on the shoulder in support, they either have options of who to pass to, or the first support man has support for when that final defender gets over to cover.

So how do you stop this? Well it’s very difficult because the whole idea of attacking on the transition is that it catches you out as you are in an attacking setup and ned to organise defensively. So really, it is all about being disciplined with the ball and not giving the All Blacks that chance to turn the ball over. By playing an open and attacking game, Australia play into New Zealand’s hands as there is more chance to a mistake. South Africa on the other hand keep things very tight and organised, as we saw throughout the tournament. Wins against Australia and Argentina (who they face in Rounds 3 & 4) will be one thing, but expect a completely different type of challenge when the All Blacks face the Springboks in the final 2 rounds. That will be the true test for Ian Foster’s side.

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Australia

With the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa completing last weekend, it was time to get back to our annual rugby competitions with the beginning of the 2021edition of the Rugby Championship. Opening the tournament was a match between New Zealand and Australia at Eden Park, the 2ⁿᵈ of 3 Bledisloe Cup matches in 2021.

And it was last week’s losers Australia who were creating the early chances in Auckland, tough after making it to the All Blacks 22, Noah Lolesio saw his wide pass intercepted by Reiko Ioane and the winger, given a chance in his preferred position of outside centre, used his pace to take the ball the distance for the opening try. The Wallabies answered with their next attack though, drawing the defence in tight with a series of phases, before Lolesio chipped out wide to Andrew Kellaway, who stepped inside Damian McKenzie to go over in the corner, though a missed conversion from Lolesio kept the All Blacks ahead. This try appeared to spark the All Blacks, who grew into the game, and the Australian defence just succeeded in holding them out on a couple of occasions at the expense of just 1 penalty from Richie Mo’unga. Eventually the Wallabies defence earned a penalty of their own near halfway, but when Tom Banks chose to catch out the All Blacks with a tap and go, the support was lacking and the ball was quickly turned over out wide. The All Blacks took immediate advantage, spreading the ball out to Akira Ioane on the other wing who broke with support, dummying Kellaway to make more ground before finally feeding McKenzie, who offloaded to Brodie Retallick to finish the counter. As the game reached the half hour point, Lolesio cut the lead with a penalty, but his next kick proved costly. Attempting to clear his lines after the restart, the young fly half found his angle to the left touchline cut off by a charging Dalton Papali’i, so switched to kick to the further away right touchline. The ball came nowhere near touch and instead fell straight into the arms of Richie Mo’unga, who immediately countered deep into the Australian 2, and after a series of phases, Ardie Savea pushed over from close range. As the half came to an end, there was just time for the Wallabies to cut the lead with a try, with Rob Valetini drawing the defenders off the back of a 5m scrum, and feeding a looping Tate McDermott to go over beneath the posts, with Lolesio converting for a halftime score of 21-15.

After ending the first half on a high, the Wallabies were straight out the blocks after the break and soon found themselves with a temporary numerical advantage as Ardie Savea was sent to the sin bin. Looking to capitalise on the extra man in the pack, the team kicked to the corner, but Brandon Paenga-Amosa was unable to throw in straight and the chance as lost. And it didn’t take long for the All Blacks to make them pay for the missed chance, with Aaron Smith finding space down the blind side of a ruck to break away and feed Codie Taylor for a try, before Damian McKenzie kicked a monster penalty from inside his own half. If Australian hopes were hanging on by a thread, that thread was cut just moments later after Matt To’omua’s speculative wide pass was intercepted and ran back by Sevu Reece for yet another try. Codie Taylor went over for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the game on the hour and Will Jordan scored again just minutes later. However as the substitutions came on, the All Blacks appeared to drop off towards the end for the second week in a row, and Andrew Kellaway duly took advantage to go over in the corner for another try. With the clock in the red, both teams looked to end on a high, and when Kellaway fumbled, Will Jordan was able to collect the ball and hold up play to allow support to arrive before feeding David Havili, who went over to end the game with one last try, while Beauden Barrett converted for a final score of 57-22, the highest points total New Zealand had scored at home against Australia.

Own worst enemies

It’s harsh to say, but the Wallabies were their own worst enemies in this match. They had very few good chances to score and one of them as wasted by failing to correctly execute their own lineout correctly—an issue that isn’t new for Brandon Paenga-Amosa.

But even worse is when you look at the tries they conceded. Of the 8 tries New Zealand scored, 5 of them can be directly attributed to mistakes from the Wallabies, including all 3 of heir first half tries. Let’s start with the most obvious ones: the interceptions. While Kellaway scored 2 tries from the prior phases sucking in the defence, in the case of both interceptions, the Wallabies had not earned the right to go wide, which left defenders in position to exploit the wide passes, exactly like Richie Mo’unga’s try last weekend. Now for the remaining 3, let’s look at them in chronological order.

First up is Brodie Retallick’s try. Banks takes a risk by trying to catch the All Blacks out with a tap and go rather than a kick to touch, and credit to the Wallabies, they make ground to probably around the same area as where the kick would have gone out, however the break means that most of the Wallabies back line are involved in that first breakdown, so when Swinton knocks on and loses possession immediately after, the Australian defence is too narrow and—with Kellaway dropping back to defend the kick in behind—Rob Valentini is left exposed as the widest man in the defensive line with Paenga-Amosa inside him. It takes just a couple of wide passes to put Akira Ioane around the edge of the defence, with men in support allowing him to successfully dummy Kellaway and have men with him when he is eventually closed down.

Next we come to Savea’s try, and this is all about Lolesio’s kick giving Mo’unga the chance to counter and put the All Blacks on the front foot in the Australian 22. Mo’unga is in the pocket to buy time for a kick to the left hand touchline, but comes under pressure from Dalton Papali’i, who blitzes up alone to try charging down the clearance. Now in this moment, Lolesio has a couple of options. He could hold on tot he ball and try to step back inside to the left, where there is a small pod of players nearby including Michael Hooper, who could probably secure the breakdown with Papali’i on his own. The other options are to kick deep down the middle in an attempt to turn the All Blacks, or to kick for the right touchline, which is very far away so will result in very little ground gained. However, the New Zealand defence on that touchline has already dropped back expecting the kick, which actually leaves space for a kick pass to the right wing. Even if it doesn’t lead to a break, it gives them a chance to reset and build a safer platform from which to clear their lines. However, he instead appeared stuck in multiple minds, putting in a short central kick that also wasn’t high enough for his teammates to get into position to challenge for, allowing Mo’unga an easy catch with space to launch a counter, which put the All Blacks on the front foot deep in the Australian 22.

And finally, if we look at Havilli’s try, it all comes from Andrew Kellaway fumbling Lolesio’s pass in slippery conditions as they try to play for a meaningless try, with the ball being recovered by Will Jordan, who takes things from there. Cleverly noticing that Michael Hooper has already changed his running line to intercept a run to the posts, the Crusader instead runs a largely sideways route, that takes him towards the touchline but gives his support time to arrive. So when he is finally tackled, there are 3 defenders beyond him who have all overcommitted on trying to cover a run up the touchline, which leaves a wide open space for David Havili to run into after taking the offload.

To defeat the best teams in the world, you need to play close to perfect. This is too many mistakes at crucial moments, with the turnovers allowing the All Blacks to take advantage of a defence that isn’t set. If Australia want to have success in this year’s Rugby Championship, they need to be more accurate in possession and cut out these costly errors.

Coasting

While this may be another big victory for the All Blacks, I can’t help feel that the questions surrounding Ian Foster’s role should remain. They are far from the team that just a few seasons ago was on a run to try and beat the record for consecutive Test victories. Arguably, they have a better all-round fly half now in Richie Mo’unga, but it feels like there are very few positions where there is a clear pecking order, the others being lock (Retallick and Whitelock) and scrum half (Aaron Smith). Beyond that, though, the constant chopping and changing of personnel—admittedly not helped right now by injuries to Sam Cane and a number of centres—is leaving the all Blacks in a position where they are lacking the chemistry of past teams and making a lot more errors.

The players have a natural skill and level of quality that is currently getting them through games, and to say that they hardly reached 4ᵗʰ gear in this match says a lot about the quality of opposition they were against, with Will Jordan’s try notable as being a result of players just attacking a gap created by a gold shirt bursting out to claim a loose ball that Aaron Smith beat them to, allowing the All Blacks to create a break that they converted with ease.

Against a top team though—for example South Africa, France or (on their day) England—it will be a much harder test. Will this team be able to put together the level of performance required? Right now, I feel that they have the players with the potential to do so, but I feel that the team is far from ready…

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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 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: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

The Bledisloe Cup may already have been decided last week, but the Rugby Championship (or Tri Nations, as it is being called this year with South Africa absent) was still on the line as New Zealand faced Australia at Suncorp Stadium.

Both teams made a number of changes, but it was the Wallabies who got the better start as they collected Reece Hodge’s chip into the All Black 22 to set up Tom Wright for a try just 3 minutes into his Test debut. The All Blacks soon hit back, going through the phases to create space for Reiko Ioane to cross out wide. Reece Hodge kicked a penalty to put Australia ahead, and when Ofa Tu’ungafasi was shown a red card for a high tackle on Tom Wright, it looked like the game was swinging in their favour. However, New Zealand were next to score through a Jordie Barrett penalty, before Lachlan Swinton’s debut came to a premature end 35 minutes in with a red card for a high shot of his own. Marika Koroibete followed Swinton off the pitch in the final minute of the first half (though just for 10 minutes), but the Wallabies managed to hold n for a halftime score of 8-8.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Wallabies opened up the scoring in the second half with another Hodge penalty, and Koroibete returned to the field just in time to deny Sevu Reece in the corner, though it came at the expense of a 5m lineout, which the All Blacks drove over for Codie Taylor to score, Barrett hitting the conversion. Hodge kept the scores close with another penalty, before New Zealand saw Scott Barrett sent to the bin for cynically playing the ball on the floor. The Wallabies took advantage of the extra man, kicking the penalty for 3 points before Taniela Tupou crashed over from close range with just 5 minutes left, Hodge kicking the conversion for a 24-15 lead. With the game back to 14v14 for the final minutes, Tupou Vaa’i crashed over and Jordie Barrett added the conversion to bring it back within 2 points, but some dogged defence from Marika Koroibete forced a knock-on after the restart and the Wallabies were able to see out the final minute for a 24-22 victory.

On the up

With a new head coach in Dave Rennie, the Wallabies squad is clearly at the start of a post-World Cup rebuild, with a number of young inexperienced players being brought in and given the chance in these early matches. While the results haven’t always been there over these first 4 games, there have been positive performances on the whole. This was probably the most impressive performance to date, given that they were missing 3 key players in James O’Connor, Matt To’omua and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

Playing Reece Hodge at fly half gave much more control and composure, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move out to centre to provide some experienced support for Lolesio at 10 against Argentina. Hunter Paisami is quickly becoming the reliable rock in midfield, while Wright’s impressive debut shows that the Wallabies have at least 3 great options on the wing with him, Koroibete and Filipo Daugunu.

Meanwhile in the pack, Matt Philip looks like he has been playing international rugby for years, Harry Wilson continues to impress and Lachlan Swinton was doing a great job as an enforcer until his red card. And then let’s not forget in the front row, where Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou are one of the best 1-2-punches at tighthead in international rugby!

If Australia can continue to build on these early performances, they will be a dangerous opponent in the next couple of years.

Their own worst enemy

As great as Australia were in this game, the All Blacks were their own worst enemy and need to take a long hard look at their discipline during the week. New Zealand conceded 12 penalties in this game and spent almost 75% of the game without a full complement on the pitch.

Now, Tu’ungafasi’s red card was a little unfortunate as it clearly wasn’t a deliberate attempt to cause injury, however it was just another example of players not getting low enough and then driving their body up for the big hit, and with the contact coming directly to the head/neck area, Nic Berry had no choice but to give the red card.

If Tu’ungafasi’s was unfortunate, Scott Barrett’s yellow was nothing short of moronic, as he was clearly on the floor having been part of the breakdown and somehow inexplicably thought he could get away with slapping the ball out of Nic White’s hand. You could maybe get away with it in amateur rugby, but a professional, international tournament with cameras everywhere? Not a chance! Sevu Reece also gave away some stupid, costly penalties as well and in my opinion had a poor game with his place on the line.

Poor discipline is often down to poor coaching, and with Ian Foster’s first 4 matches all coming against a rebuilding Australia but including a draw at home and a loss, he needs to get things sorted out fast, or the success of Scott Robertson with the Crusaders will keep him on a very short leash.

Debut disappointment

As an All Black, you never want to make your Test debut in a (usually rare) loss, but for 2 players, today’s debuts were even more disappointing.

Akira Ioane is a highly talented back row – so much so that I picked him in my Uncapped XV back in early 2018. Though he went through a patch of bad form, he has got back to his best and earned this start, performing well until he was pulled to make way for Tyrel Lomax following Tu’ungafasi’s red card.

Meanwhile, Will Jordan was forced to wait until the 65ᵗʰ minute of this match to finally make his debut, despite being one of the best players in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Unfortunately, he found himself leaving the field just 5 minutes later wit an injury, before he even got to touch the ball!

Hopefully Jordan’s injury is nothing serious and he can look to start against Argentina next week, as I feel that the All Blacks will look to use their wider squad a little more. Hopefully these upcoming Tests against the Pumas will see players like Jordan, Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Asafo Aumua given the chance to earn their spot on the international stage.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 3)

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 3)

New Zealand and Australia met for the 3ʳᵈ time in 4 weeks, but this time at ANZ Stadium in Sydney to kick off the 2020 edition of the Rugby Championship. Usually contested by Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa, the South African’s late return to rugby as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the World Champions pulled out of this year’s tournament.

The Wallabies couldn’t have got off to a much worse start, as wing Filipo Daugunu was sent to the in within a couple of minutes for tackling Caleb Clarke in the air. The All Blacks positioned themselves in the Australian 22 and when the defenders rushed to cover the open side, the New Zealand forwards stayed on the blind side to create a massive overlap, from which Karl Tu’inukuafe crashed over for his first Test try, converted by Richie Mo’unga. Jordie Barrett soon found himself joining Daugunu in the bin for leading with a forearm, but the All Backs remained in control and thought they had extended the lead when Dane Coles dotted down a cross-kick from Mo’unga, only for replays to show that he did not have sufficient control. Caleb Clarke crossed the line a few minutes later but was denied by a wonderful covering tackle by Marika Koribete, but with both teams back to 15, Mo’unga ran a reverse off Aaron Smith and beat Brandon Paenga-Amosa for pace to go over in the corner. As the half hour mark approached, Mo’unga reacted quickest to a chip over the defensive line by Beauden Barrett and outran the cover to score under the posts and convert, before a catch and drive lineout saw Dane Coles score from 5 metres out, Mo’unga converting for a 0-26 halftime lead.

The second half started much better for the Wallabies, as Jordan Petaia broke through the All Blacks defence just over a minute after the restart and after he was finally brought down 10 metres short of the line, Noah Lolesio took advantage of a scrambling defence to crash through a gap and score on his debut. With the second half proving a much tighter affair, Mo’unga added 3 points from the tee on the hour mark, before Hoskins Sotutu broke off a 5m scrum to the blind side and feed replacement wing Reiko Ioane to go over in the corner, with Mo’unga again converting. The win was secured by this point but Jordie Barrett put the cherry on top, running a beautiful out to in line off Mo’unga to break through on halfway and go over next to the posts to give Mo’unga an easy conversion. The Wallabies kept fighting to the end and almost had a consolation try at the death through Koroibete, only for Jordie Barrett to make a try-saving tackle and preserve the 5-43 scoreline – a record margin of victory in the fixture. This 2-0 scoreline after 3 matches meant that the All Blacks secured the Bledisloe Cup for the 18ᵗʰ consecutive year with next week’s 4ᵗʰ Test to spare.

Youthful inexperience

Australia were dealt a massive blow ahead of this fixture, with both Matt To’omua and James O’Connor ruled out through injury. This led to Dave Rennie picking an incredibly inexperienced midfield of flyhalf Noah Lolesio (20 years old, uncapped) and centres Irae Simone (25, uncapped) and Jordan Petaia (20, 4 caps). While a talented trio of players who I think all have great international careers ahead of them, playing as a midfield trio against the All Blacks seemed a little too soon.

Unfortunately, their inexperience on the international stage showed, especially in the first half, with too much possession kicked away, especially while Jordie Barrett was in the bin, during which time all 3 of these players kicked the ball away aimlessly when in the New Zealand half, gifting possession back to the All Blacks when they should have been going through the phases to utilise their numerical advantage.

Personally, I think that Dave Rennie would have done better starting Reece Hodge in this match in place of Lolesio. While the Brumbie is arguably the more talented fly half, Hodge would have added that top-level experience in a crucial position, while his howitzer of a right boot could have come in handy in wet conditions.

Suffice to say, this will have been a great learning experience for the youngsters, Rennie just needs to hope that they can quickly get over a record defeat.

Mo’unga magic

I’ve been critical of the way that Richie Mo’unga is used in the All Blacks set-up, but this match gave a tease of just how great a player he is.

Often in internationals, he is more or a game manager, but in this match – like when he plays for the Crusaders – he got the chance to really show off his skills. Though small in stature, he is deceptively strong, but he also has the pace and footwork to be a threat in space, as he showed with both of his tries in this match, beating Paenga-Amaso to the outside as he ran a reverse for his first try in the corner, while slightly angling his run to avoid Koroibete and Lolesio for his second. He almost had a hat trick too, reacting quickest to Daugunu dropping a high ball, only for him to lose his footing when clean through – though even then he had the presence of mind to look for the offload to Jack Goodhue.

I’m still not fully sure of the Mo’unga/Barrett/Barrett 10/15/14 combination as I don’t think it gets the best out of Mo’unga or Jordie Barrett, but it certainly looked better in this game.

Playing smart

When you’re playing against the All Blacks, you need to be smart with your possession and not give it away cheaply. Unfortunately, that was the exact opposite of what the Wallabies did for much of this match.

As well as aimless kicks, the team were frequently looking for the offload, despite the slippery conditions, and this unsurprisingly led to a high number of turnovers. I imagine that much of it came from youthful exuberance and wanting to make something happen there and then, but at this level of the game, you need to be more disciplined.

If you give the All Blacks possession, they will make you pay, but if you can keep hold of the ball and keep going through the phases, playing smart rugby, you have the chance to tire them and create chances.

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2020 Bledisloe Cup #2: New Zealand v Australia

2020 Bledisloe Cup #2: New Zealand v Australia

With the Rugby Championship kicking off in just 2 weeks, New Zealand hosted Australia at Eden Park for the second of four Bledisloe Cup matches in 2020. With last week’s draw meaning that 2 victories will be enough to win the series, both teams were up for a physical encounter in much more favourable conditions for running rugby.

After an open start, Richie Mo’unga opened the scoring from the tee. Some impressive counterattacking from Mo’unga and Dane Coles gave Beauden Barrett a platform to put a grubber in behind and pressure from Jordie Barrett caused Marika Koroibete to carry it over his own line for a 5m scrum to New Zealand. Jack Goodhue took the ball on a crash course to the try line on the first phase and Aaron Smith slipped under the challenge of Ned Hanigan to score the try, Mo’unga kicking the conversion. Australia looked to hit back and when Ned Hanigan slipped through Joe Moody’s attempted tackle to break deep into the All Blacks 22, a pass out to Taniela Tupou drew in the wide defenders and quick ball saw the overlap exploited for Koroibete to cross in the corner, James O’Connor making it 10-7 at the break with the conversion.

New Zealand were out of the blocks quicker after the break and extended their lead in just over 2 minutes, after Caleb Clarke broke into the 22 and a series of phases gave Mo’unga and Jack Goodhue the platform to send Jordie Barrett over in the corner, Mo’unga missing the touchline conversion. A loose kick from O’Connor and questionable chase from his teammates saw Clarke rampage through the defence, eventually being stopped in the 22, but the effort had left a massive overlap to the left and Ardie Savea rode Filipo Daugunu’s tackle to score. Australia needed to hit back and it looked like they had as Koroibete ran through Mo’unga to cross in the corner, only for the fly half to hang on and roll with the contact to hold the ball up. The chance wasn’t gone for the Wallabies, though, as they had a penalty advantage and chose to go for the 5m catch and drive lineout. Brandon Paenga-Amosa managed to dot the ball down over the line, but a referral to the TMO saw the try disallowed for a double movement, and the All Blacks were able to clear their lines from the resultant penalty. This was a big hit to the Wallabies, and momentum completely shifted away from them just minutes later as Mo’unga put Patrick Tuipulotu through a gap. The lock offloaded to Sam Cane and the captain cut inside the covering defender to score under the posts, with Mo’unga converting to make a 27-7 scoreline that would last to the final whistle.

From Blue to Black

Caleb Clarke may have only been making his first start after coming on for his debut last week, but his performance rightly deserved the standing ovation he received from the crowd when he was replaced and it’s easy to imagine that the former 7s star may have already secured the 11 jersey.

For those who hadn’t seen him playing for the Blues during Super Rugby Aotearoa, the son of Eroni Clarke (All Black #919, 24 caps) showed in his late cameo last week that he was a strong carrier on the wing. This week, with conditions much more favourable to running rugby, the 21-year old ran rampant, finishing with vastly more metres than anyone else on the pitch and leaving defenders in his wake. Not only is he incredibly strong and difficult to put down, but he is an elusive runner and you need to ensure as a defender that you go low and hang on for dear life to make sure that he can’t right himself mid-fall and carry on, as he did a few times in this match.

He will certainly have harder tests defensively as Filipo Daugunu had a quiet game, but such is his game-changing talent, it is hard to imagine him being left out of the side if fit. It looks like All Black #1187 is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Spoiling game

The Wallabies’ new lock pairing of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Matt Philip has really impressed me over these last 2 matches. While they were less of a feature in the loose this week, Philip especially stood out for me at the lineout.

Neither Codie Taylor nor Dane Coles had the best of times throwing at the lineouts during Super Rugby Aotearoa and with Tuipulotu and Tupou Vaa’i at lock, they had unfamiliar targets to throw at. Already this is going to make the lineouts more tricky than usual, but Philip did a great job of not just trying to get up and compete against the All Blacks, but also disrupt them before the throw by making as much noise as he can in order to put off the All Blacks and potentially make them mishear the call.

I was surprised last week to see Rob Simmons only on the bench, but right now I agree with Dave Rennie’s decision and think that Salakaia-Loto and Philip are the top pairing the Wallabies can field.

Costly injuries

With the Rugby Championship (and the third Bledisloe Cup match) just 2 weeks away, both teams saw a couple of influential players go down injured in this game.

Matt To’omua went off just before half time after struggling for a few minutes with an injury that appeared to come about as he kicked a clearance – possibly a groin/hip flexor. The Rebels playmaker is a key part of this Wallabies backline, controlling the game along with James O’Connor while also leading the Wallabies defensive effort. It was no surprise to see the All Blacks piling on most of their points after he had been replaced.

Meanwhile for the All Blacks, Sam Whitelock was missing from this match due to concussion and there were 2 more head injuries for them in this game, with Joe Moody being knocked out after getting his head on the wrong place trying to tackle Ned Hanigan in the build-up to Koroibete’s try, while debutant Peter Umaga-Jensen failed a late Head Injury Assessment. You would hope that 2 weeks would be sufficient for all 3 to make a recovery, but head injuries are tricky things to judge and you need to be extra careful with them. What makes the potential loss of Umaga-Jensen (himself a replacement in the squad for the injured Braydon Ennor) more of a worry is that last weekend’s 13 Reiko Ioane missed this match through injury. That leaves very few options behind Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue, though I would not be against seeing Jordie Barrett cover the centre position – he is wasted on the wing – to create space on the right wing for Will Jordan, who would himself be getting a chance due to a season-ending injury for George Bridge.

Both teams will certainly be hoping that they can get as many of their squad back to full fitness as possible ahead of the next Bledisloe Cup match, as victory for the All Blacks would secure the title for 2020.

2020 Bledisloe Cup #1: New Zealand v Australia

2020 Bledisloe Cup #1: New Zealand v Australia

Tier 1 international rugby returned this weekend with the Bledisloe Cup. This was the first of 4 Bledisloe Cup fixtures we will see over the coming months, with another match next week and then 2 more fixtures during the Rugby Championship.

Match 1 took place in wet and windy Wellington but any thoughts that the home team would have an early advantage were soon quashed as Australia came out the gates strongly. However, the quality of the All Blacks soon shone through and after Damian McKenzie countered a kick, they took just a few phases to put Jordie Barrett over in the corner for the first try of Ian Foster’s tenure as head coach – though they were lucky that assistant referee Angus Gardner missed an obvious foot in touch from Reiko Ioane in the build-up. Barrett and James O’Connor struggled off the tee in heavy winds but each successfully added 3 points as the half went on. Australia had one more chance to attack in the half off a lineout, but Folau Fainga’a gave away possession at the back of the lineout and the All Blacks broke en masse. The ball came to Ioane who crossed the line, but replays showed that he had been too casual grounding the ball and had knocked on in the process and the score remained 8-3 going into the break.

New Zealand struck first after the break, playing pretty much the same move off the lineout that Australia had tried at the end of the first half and pulling it off to put Aaron Smith over in the corner – though it appeared that all the officials missed Joe Moody holding James Slipper in the maul as he tried to roll out and make a tackle. At 13-3, it felt like Australia had to score next o have any chance of winning in their first match under Dave Rennie, and that is exactly what they did with a great first phase play that saw O’Connor put Marika Koribete over in the corner. Then just after the hour mark, Damian McKenzie managed to get his hands in to turn over the ball on the flood as Matt Philip was brought down, but the ball was not secured and Nic White reacted quickest to put Filipo Daugunu over in the corner on his debut. With just 6 minutes left, a breakdown penalty allowed O’Connor to kick the Wallabies ahead for the first time in the match, but a pair of penalties allowed the All Blacks to reach the Australian 22 and then Rob Simmonds conceded a penalty at the maul, which Jordie Barrett kicked to level the scores.

And then in the 79ᵗʰ minute, the game went crazy. Australia won a penalty about 5 metres inside their own half (though the angle probably added a couple more metres to the post) and they called upon the big boot of replacement centre Reece Hodge. With the wind at his back, distance was no issue, but the accuracy was just off and the ball came crashing back off the post, only to be claimed by Australia in the New Zealand 22. However, after a number of phases looking for the try – and a clear penalty at the breakdown by Tupou Vaa’i missed by all officials – the kiwis turned over the ball and made their own way down to the Australia 22, only for a series of turnovers before O’Connor finally saw sense and kicked the ball out after 89 minutes to secure a 16-16 draw.

Shut down

Ian Foster may not recognise the quality of Richie Mo’unga judging by how little he had him controlling the game, but Australia certainly did. So many times, the Crusaders first five-eighth would find himself under heavy pressure with a defender or 2 blitzing up in his face to give him limited time to get the ball away. Not only that but there were a number of times where he got smashed after the pass, though the hits were always soon enough after the pass that they could be considered legal.

If Mo’unga is allowed to get into a rhythm and dictate the game, he will rip a team apart and there were a few hints to this in the game, but the Wallabies did a great job of hurrying him, while also winning a number of collisions and slowing down the ball whenever possible to give their defence every possible chance to not just recover, but to go out and compete against a dangerous All Blacks lineup.

Between this and England’s victory in the World Cup, the way to beat the All Blacks is becoming clear.

Isolated

This Australia team looked immediately better than many we saw in the latter days of Michael Cheika’s tenure. There was a very balanced look tot he team, with Hunter Paisami and the wingers bringing a physical edge to complement James O’Connor and Matt To’omua in the back line, while players like Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Matt Philip and Taniela Tupou were constantly willing to take the ball on and make the hard yards. Even Nic White appeared to attack the fringes more than we would usually see him doing in the Premiership with Exeter!

While this was great to see, there were some clear hints that the team is still getting used to playing together, and the big one was the number of times that players would get isolated. A couple of times White found himself snagged after taking on the ball himself rather than making the pass, while a large proportion of Australia’s 14 penalties conceded came from their own attacking play, with the team either being penalised for holding on at the ruck or illegal entry to the breakdown. Had they been a bit better in this area, they could have ran away with the match, as they found themselves turned over on the All Blacks try line on a couple of occasions.

This isn’t a big surprise though. This is the first competitive game for this Wallabies side, which is heavily changed both in personnel and playing style. Give it a few games together and this is an area that should improve. I thought that the Wallabies may struggle in the Rugby Championship, but if this performance is anything to go by, they could be a dark horse for the competition.

Take a risk

Unlike the Wallabies, Ian Foster’s first All Blacks XV had a very familiar look to it. For a team as successful as New Zealand, the tried and tested players aren’t necessarily the wrong choice, but I think that Foster seriously missed a chance here.

Jordie Barrett, Hoskins Sotutu and Will Jordan were arguably 3 of the star players during Super Rugby Aotearoa, yet this match saw them wasted out of position, on the bench and not even in the 23 respectively. Caleb Clarke had limited time on the pitch but really seemed to bring something to the attack after his introduction, as did Sotutu.

With next weekend’s second Bledisloe Cup match the All Blacks’ last game before the Rugby Championship, I think that this is the perfect chance for Ian Foster to look at some of his options by starting some of the form players from the Rugby Championship. Bringing Sotutu in for Shannon Frizell (and moving Ardie Savea to 6) could add more variety to the back row, and while I would recommend keeping the Mo’unga, Goodhue, Ioane midfield, I would look at playing Jordie Barrett at 15 with Will Jordan and Caleb Clarke on the wings, which I feel would lead to a more balanced (if inexperienced) back 3 than what we saw in this game. Similarly, I would also look to take more of the control of the game from Aaron Smith and let Mo’unga play more of his natural game that we see with the Crusaders. Eve if this becomes a “Plan B”, it would still be a message to the other nations that if you find a way to stop one gameplan, the All Blacks will find another way to win.

Wasted opportunity

Did ether team really want to win this game? You wouldn’t think so from the way the game played out after Reece Hodge struck the posts. Both Australia and New Zealand had multiple phases inside the opponent’s 22, and yet the 9 minutes of extra rugby passed with not a single phase where a team put a kicker in the pocket to go for the drop goal.

It was absolutely crazy, with plenty of breakdowns relatively in line with the posts to minimise the risk (even with the wind), while the Wallabies had 3 recognised kickers on the pitch in O’Connor, To’omua and Hodge, and the All Blacks had 2 in Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett. Any one of these players could have been the hero who won the Bledisloe, but nobody stepped up (or back, as the case may be) in the moment.

I understand that a team would much rather win with a last gasp try at the death as it’s much more exciting, but as Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto tells Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner in The Fast and the Furious, “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning’s winning!” You’re not going to turn up your nose at a drop goal if that’s the Rugby World Cup final, so you better get your practice in now.

Honestly, both teams should look back at this match and consider it a loss due to the way they threw away this chance to win!

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

As the Premiership prepared to kick off it’s return to play following the COVID-19 lockdown, Super Rugby AU entered Round 7 with the Western Force hosting the NSW Waratahs at “home” at the Cbus Super Stadium. The Waratahs were coming in off the back of a huge win over rivals the Reds, but after an early Will Harrison penalty, they found themselves behind to a try from Brynard Stander, who got on the end of a beautiful grubber kick by Richard Kahui. Harrison kicked a further 2 penalties to one from Force captain Ian Prior, before a break through the middle of the field saw Jake Gordan pulled down just short, only for Jack Maddocks to spread a wide pass from the back of the ruck to put Alex Newsome over in the corner, with Harrison converting to make it 8-16 at half time.

The ‘Tahs just missed out on another try before halftime after they were held up over the line with the final play of the half, but they scored soon after the break as Jack Maddocks intercepted a wide pass from Jono Lance on halfway and took it back to the house. With the Waratahs having a further 2 tries disallowed as the half went on (a second for Maddocks and one for Gordon) it looked like all the scoring may be done, but replacement prop Harry Johnson-Holmes burrowed over in the dying seconds to secure a 8-28 win.

Thrown away

New Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie must be having nightmares at the thought of selecting hookers right now and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him trying to beg Stephen Moore to come out of retirement. While so many roles in the game have gone from being position-specific to being performed by everyone, the role of throwing in at the lineout remains one of those key tasks that separates the hookers from the rest of the team.

The problem though, is that nobody in Australia seems able to throw a reliable lineout. Brandon Paenga-Amosa had a horror-show against the Waratahs last week, while the Brumbies have struggled to utilise their driving maul as much as they’d like due to issues with Folau Fainga’a and Connal McInerney throwing in. In this match, the Force managed to win only 10 out of 18 lineouts on their own throw, which was costly in this game. And while the ‘Tahs were a little more reliable, 77% (7/9) is still well below the percentages you would want and expect.

Lacking a reliable lineout massively impacts your game. The obvious downside is that it takes away a great attacking platform, but it is so much worse. It heavily limits your options with penalties in attacking positions if you know there is a good chance you will lose possession, prompting you to go for a scrum (always a gamble with the way they are refereed), a tap r settle for 3 points. At a defensive penalty, you may not want to clear your lines for touch if you think that the ball will be turned over and just ran back at you, leading to you playing from dangerously deep in an attempt to keep some possession.

With a number of experienced lineout operators leaving Australia (with Rob Simmons off to London Irish after the tournament, that will be all 4 of the Wallabies locks from the World Cup squad playing in Europe) there will be a lot of pressure on the Wallabies’ hookers at lineout time. Dave Rennie – and the Super Rugby franchises – desperately need an improvement from their hookers.

Competition or support?

The loss of international matches due to the COVID-19 pandemic and this being the start of a new World Cup cycle mean that Dave Rennie will have some big decisions to make when selecting his first Wallabies squad. One of the biggest being at a key position: fly half. With Bernard Foley and Christian Leali’ifano now out of the way, Rennie will have to decide whether he goes with an experienced head like Matt To’omua or James O’Connor, or look at a more long-term option in Will Harrison or Noah Lolesio – though Harrison would appear the more likely option given Lolesio is missing much of the competition with injury.

Harrison is looking a very good fly half and has been near-perfect off the tee so far in the competition. However he is not the most physical fly half by any means so would likely be seen as a target in defence, while he also often plays a little deeper for the Waratahs, picking his moments to come flat to the line. The solution to these issues may have been given however by the form of Karmichael Hunt. Having not started in the Waratahs XV at the beginning of the tournament, Hunt has made their 12 jersey his own. He provides a physical option at centre but also helps take the pressure off of Harrison with his ability to distribute the ball, often coming in at first receiver and taking the ball flatter to the line. The New Zealand squads have focused mainly on a 10/15 playmaker axis during Super Rugby Aotearoa, but it could easily work the same way with a 10/12 axis – providing the players around them do their job as runners – with one player coming flat to the line with runners, and the other hanging deeper to spread the ball if the defence bites in on the runners.

Hunt’s form has certainly put him in the picture to return to the Wallabies squad, but there would also be the opportunity to utilise the versatility of To’omua or O’Connor at 12. I feel confident that we will see this from Rennie, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Harrison coming off the bench later in the game, with O’Connor or To’omua starting at 10 and shifting out a position when Harrison comes on. Personally, I would do that against the All Blacks, who I feel will be dominant in the upcoming Rugby Championship, but starting Harrison and one of the trio against South Africa and Argentina, with another of the trio on the bench who can either come on to replace either Harrison or the inside centre depending on how the match is going.

Wasteful Force

The Force will come away from this one disappointed, especially to have not scored a point in the second half. It would take a miracle for them to avoid finishing bottom of the table, and their focus needs to be on getting a win under their belts in these last 3 rounds. That’s certainly not impossible, but they need to cut out errors.

Obviously, improving the lineout will go a long way to help, but the team were also somewhat wasteful at times. While Stander’s try came from a great grubber by Richard Kahui (which maybe took a lucky last bounce), there were occasions where the Force were too quick to put boot to ball… and it cost them dearly.

A scrum in a good attacking position came to nothing as Kahui tried another grubber in behind, only to put too much on it and see the ball go dead, while Godwin made a great break and then wasted it by kicking on when he thought the defence were about to catch him. One of the big features of rugby union is that there is no 6 tackles like rugby league or 4 downs like american football. The Force do not have to score off the first phase and would benefit from going through the phases. You don’t have to look any further than Newsome’s try in this game, where Jake Gordon could have kicked as the defence approached, but instead chose to keep hold of the ball and recycle, leading tot he try being scored on the very next phase.

The Force have shown that they deserve to be in the competition, a little more composure could get them that elusive first win.

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