2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

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

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

Lacking

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

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

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

Plan B

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

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

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

Limited opportunity

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

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

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

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: 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: 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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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!

North Island v South Island 2020

North Island v South Island 2020

I’ve been seriously missing Super Rugby Aotearoa these past few weeks, so on the eve of the All Blacks selection announcement, this match between the North Island and South Island – the first since a fundraiser in 2012 – was something I was looking forward to… and it didn’t really disappoint!

The North Island couldn’t have got a much better start to the match, as Reiko Ioane go on the end of a Beauden Barrett grubber kick to score the opening try after just 2 and a half minutes, with Damian McKenzie kicking the extras. It didn’t take long for the South Island to find an answer though, as a driving maul got them to the North Island try line and Nepo Laulala took the ball the final few inches, Jordie Barrett hitting the conversion and a penalty soon after to go ahead. Next came arguably the try of the match as the North Island attacked down the blind side 15m channel with some beautiful interplay from Reiko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie seeing the Chiefs fullback put North Island back ahead with the try and successful conversion. Jordie Barrett missed a penalty, but made amends just after the half hour mark, powering over int he corner after a slick pass out of the ruck from Codie Taylor, before hitting the conversion for a halftime lead of 14-17.

The North Island struck first again in the second half as replacement scrum half Aaron Smith followed up with an inside support line after the team made a break down the right through Damian McKenzie and Hoskins Sotutu, McKenzie converting again. 10 minutes later and North Island were on the attack again, but a pass from McKenzie went astray and while Caleb Clarke managed to keep the ball in play, he was unable to collect and South Island winger Will Jordan swooped in to steal the ball and take it to the house. while the South Island scored again just minutes later as Richie Mo’unga hit Tyrel Lomax on a perfect line with a beautiful flat pass, Barrett kicking both conversions to extend the lead. North Island refused to give up and narrowed the lead when Reiko Ioane slipped through the challenges of Shannon Frizell and Leicester Fainga’anuku to score under the posts, with McKenzie cutting the lead to 3 points. Then came the controversial moment on 71 minutes as Ash Dixon took an hard line off Aaron Smith to go under the posts. Referee Paul Williams awarded the try without consulting the TMO and the conversion was taken quickly, before replays could show that Dixon had been held up over the line. As the clock ticked past the 80 minutes, it looked like that decision may prove costly, but a series of penalties gave the South Island one more chance from a 5m lineout. With a penalty advantage given at the resultant maul, and with the North Island defence extremely narrow, replacement fly half Josh Ioane went for the cross-kick and Will Jordan rose above Mitch Hunt to take the ball above his head and score the winning try, Barrett adding the extras to confirm a 35-38 victory.

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Stand-out performers

While a couple of players may not have had the impact they would have hoped, there was no player in either 23 who came away from the match with a diminished reputation. Some definitely improved on theirs, though.

Jordie Barrett was arguably one of the best men on the pitch, frequently showing his skills in both attack and defence while going near-perfect off the tee. Will Jordan was quiet in the first half but grew into the game and picked his moments to have maximum impact with 2 crucial tries. To me, they are the top 2 options at fullback right now, and I would expect Jordie Barrett to get the All Blacks 15 shirt if Ian Foster picks on form as he creates the 10/15 playmaker axis, while Jordan will certainly be putting his hand up for a spot on the wing. Caleb Clarke put in a big performance that may be the only thing that stops Jordan taking one of the starting wing spots, with Foster unlikely to want 2 uncapped wingers along with a new fullback.

One person who won’t be in contention for a wing spot is Reiko Ioane, as he has shown that the experiment of moving him inside to outside centre has been a success. While we already knew of Ioane’s pace, this move has accentuated his defensive ability and his strength, while his slick handling skills in the 13 channel just make the team even more dangerous. Sticking with the Blues, Hoskins Sotutu was the star of Super Rugby Aotearoa until his injury, but looked immediately back to his best in this game with turnovers and some great attacking play.

The final mention has to go to Tom Christie. Openside flanker is a position where the All Blacks are never short of options, while there is a legacy to uphold after the reign of Richie McCaw. Tom Christie definitely wouldn’t have been the first name on people’s lips when discussing Ian Foster’s options there, but he had a fantastic season with the Crusaders and played a starring role in this game. As captain of the national team, if Sam Cane is fit then Christie’s best chance is probably a place on the bench, but don’t be surprised to see him actively fighting for the 7 shirt in the coming years.

Strength in depth

If nothing else, this match and the subsequent All Blacks squad announcement just highlighted the strength in depth available to New Zealand.

While all 8 back rowers to play in this match put in strong performances, Sam Cane was always going to make the All Blacks squad if fit, while Cullen Grace can be considered somewhat of a shock inclusion, having missed much of Super Rugby Aotearoa through injury. Beyond that, though, are players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Jacobsen and Lachlan Boshier who all missed out on both the All Blacks and this match!

In the halfbacks, it was a shame that Finlay Christie did not get more of a chance to show his quality in the match and I can’t help feel that on form he was very unlucky to miss out on international selection (cough… snap him up, Scotland… cough!). Finally, that the match 23s suggest Otere Black my be 6ᵗʰ choice at stand-off is another crazy sign of their depth, especially when you consider some of the other players who have retired from international rugby or are ineligible due to playing outside of New Zealand!

If New Zealand are to struggle at all int he coming seasons, it won’t be due to a lack of depth in the squad.

Wasted wonder

I’ve been on record as saying that I consider Richie Mo’unga to be the best fly half in the world at this moment in time. Unfortunately, following this match, I feel that his potential will not be reached while Ian Foster is in charge of the All Blacks.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga was never given a fair shot to compete against the golden boy Beauden Barrett, and when Injury to Damian McKenzie forced Barrett to move to 15 and Mo’unga to come into the XV, he was basically used in a game manager role while Barrett was given the true reins to the attack – similar to how the Blues were set up with Barrett and Otere Black. This completely takes away from his game, as playing as the lead playmaker for the Crusaders has highlighted just how good he is, while having a second playmaker at 15 would be a great support for him.

As one of Steve Hansen’s assistants, I was already worried that his selection would be bad news for Mo’unga, and this game all-but confirmed it, as Foster’s assistants Brad Mooar and Greg Feek were in charge of the South Island team. What followed was a subdued match for Mo’unga – not helped by a HIA assessment midway through the first half – as fullback Jordie Barrett was frequently popping up at first receiver. Mo’unga certainly had his moments, with an early grubber through almost ending in a try but for a great defensive play from Hoskins Sotutu and then of course his inch-perfect pass to Tyrel Lomax, but if the All Blacks were to trust him with full control like Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson does, then they would be so much more dangerous.

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