2022 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

2022 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

It’s been a thrilling (and sometimes controversial) couple of months, but the 2022 Rugby Championship is now in the rearview mirror. In one of the closest tournaments to date, arguably the worst performing All Blacks team in years managed to come away with a win that will now surely keep Ian Foster in his job through to the end of the Rugby World Cup (sorry kiwis).

And now all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Tournament. While I may use some stats to help me decide and sometimes back up my argument, this is largely done of feel from how the games went. I’d love to hear your own selections to, so let me know in the comments! And so without further ado, my Team of the Tournament is…


1) Ethan de Groot: Honestly, I’m shocked at how long Ian Foster stuck with George Bower’s awful defensive performances when de Groot was looking by far the more reliable player, but he was given the start in Round 2 and quickly solidified his place in the team with a series of reliable performances, while also helping to make the New Zealand scrum a formidable weapon.

2) Samisoni Taukei’aho: The decline of Codie Taylor and Dane Coles has been all too clear in 2022, but luckily for the All Blacks, it has coincided with the rise of Taukei’aho. The Chiefs hooker does not have the same pace as those who came before him, but makes up for that with great power and maximum effort around the park, and ended as the tournament’s top try scorer with 5, which helps him just beat out Malcolm Marx for a spot in this team.

3) Tyrel Lomax: Completing and all-New Zealand front row is Tyrel Lomax. Like de Groot on the other side of the scrum, he was given the chance to start in Round 2 and looks to have secured the number 3 shirt with a series of solid performances, making the scruma weapon while also providing a dynamic carrying option in the loose

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Matías Alemanno: One of the most experienced and consistent locks in the world, Etzebeth consistently just goes about his business in both attack and defence and rarely gets the plaudits he deserves. Likewise Alemanno, who is so reliable both in defence and the set piece and does so much good without ever really standing out in highlight reels.

6) Juan Martín González: One of the breakout stars of 2022. The 21-year-old London Irish flanker has secured himself in the Pumas’ first choice back row in place of more recognisable names, and it’s understandable why, as he always seems to be in the right pace at the right time, ending the tournament with 4 tries (beaten only by Taukei’aho) and video footage of a sidestep on Willie le Roux that will be appearing in YouTube compilations for years to come.

7) Fraser McReight: Marcos Kremer is unlucky to miss out on a spot here, but McReight had the unenviable task of coming in at the eleventh hour to take the spot of talismanic captain Michael Hooper, and despite his lack of international experience, he performed with aplomb until being inexplicably dropped for the matches against New Zealand, ending with 3 tries.

8) Ardie Savea: Jasper Wiese is unlucky to miss out on a spot here, but he was playing for a team generally on the front foot, whereas Ardie Savea was often one of the best players on the pitch even when the rest of the New Zealand performance would be described as (to put it nicely) dire. Despite missing Round 5, he still finished joint-1ˢᵗ for carries, 1ˢᵗ for offloads and 2ⁿᵈ among forwards for metres carried.

9) Jaden Hendrikse: Who had Faf de Klerk losing the Springboks 9 jersey to a 22-year-old who started the season with just a handful of caps in their predictions for 2022. Such has been the form of Hendrikse though. Provides quick ball as the Boks try to play a more open game, but also puts in the inch-perfect kicks when South Africa went to their territory game.

10) Richie Mo’unga: Almost wins the spot by default as Santiago Carreras gets used to the position while Australia and South Africa chopped and changed at the position. But that’s not to say Mo’unga played poorly. Controlled games well and his goal kicking kept the scoreboard turning over, while he looked better as the team around him began to improve following Joe Schmidt’s arrival.

11) Marika Koroibete: A consistent performer while the Wallabies’ team performances fluctuate wildly, but still had some performances where he was near-unplayable. His workrate in some games was incredible, but arguably lucky not to be penalised for that try-saver on Makazole Mapimpi.

12) Damian de Allende: Maybe struggled at times with his decision making as the ball went wide on attack, but so reliable with his direct carries and his defence, while also had to take on more responsibility with the loss of midfield partner Lukhanyo Am midway through the tournament and the chopping and changing of players at flyhalf.

13) Len Ikitau: Lukhanyo Am almost earned the spot despite missing half of the tournament, while Matías Moroni’s chances were harmed by Argentina’s inconsistency. However in a Wallabies backline that was constantly changing through injuries, Len Ikitau did a solid job of providing some consistency at a key position.

14) Emiliano Boffelli: Always a danger in the air and arguably not targeted enough in some games, what was most noticeable was how Boffelli’s kicking percentages off the tee were much better as he became the main kicker, leading to him equalling Richie Mo’unga’s points haul a the top of the stats sheet.

15) Jordie Barrett: An argument could certainly be made that his best game came at 12, but was also highly reliable at fullback. Finished the tournament in the top 1 for points scored, offloads, carries, metres carried and defenders beaten.

2022 Rugby Championship Round 6: South Africa v Argentina

2022 Rugby Championship Round 6: South Africa v Argentina

The 2022 Rugby Championship reached it’s finale on Saturday with South Africa taking on Argentina in Durban. Following New Zealand’s victory over Australia at Eden Park, South Africa knew that in order to win the title they would need not just a bonus point victory, but also a winning marking of at least 40 points.

And after a close and physical start, the Boks got the ball down across the line following a 5 metre lineout, Eben Etzebeth getting over, however it was adjudged that Etzebeth had played the ball back to Siya Kolisi before taking the ball back off him from a position in front of him, so the try was disallowed. The Springboks were keeping ball in hand and putting pressure on with attack after attack, and after 15 minutes the pressure told as an accumulation of penalties saw Marcos Kremer sent to the bin, and the Springboks took advantage of the missing forward a few minutes later to drive a 5m scrum over the line, allowing Jasper Wiese to dot down as the first quarter came to an end. The South African pressure continued, as did the Argentinian penalties, and within moments of Kremer returning to the pitch, his fellow back row Juan Martín González was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul, and though the first chance the Boks had saw Willie le Roux held up over the line, the next saw skipper Kolisi peel off a rotating maul to crash over for try number 2, while the Pumas were dealt an extra blow by the loss of Pablo Matera to injury. After 30 minutes of almost constant defence, a strong driving maul from the Pumas allowed them to kick a penalty into the hosts’ 22, but their attack came to nothing as Joel Sclavi—on early after Eduardo Bello struggled in the scrums—ran a blatant blacking line just 5m out from the try line. As the second sin bin perod came to an end, South Africa’s decision to go only for tries came to a confusing end as Frans Steyn kicked a penalty from well inside his own half, and that decision was made to look even more questionable in the grand scheme of things as Gonzalo Bertranou sniped over from close range just before halftime following a clever kick to the corner from Santiago Carreras, which left the teams going in at the break with a 17-7 scoreline.

Having ended the first half on the front foot, the Pumas continued that pressure at the start of the second, with a brave tackle from Canan Moodie stopping Julián Montoya from scoring off a clever move at the front of the lineout, while their next attack was ended by Joel Scavi being penalised for rolling on the floor after contact. However they kept coming and after attacking down the blind side, a lovely step from Juan Martín González saw him wrong foot le Roux and go over in the corner, Boffelli’s conversion cutting the lead to just 3 points. The Boks surely knew that winning the tournament was out of reach by this point and that they should focus on winning the game, and the 54ᵗʰ minute saw a strong driving maul collapsed short of the line for a penalty try, with Jeronimo de la Fuente becoming the 3ʳᵈ Argentina player to receive a yellow card in the match. In deteriorating conditions, Eben Etzebeth was given a yellow card as a push while chasing a kick led to Emiliano Boffelli being contacted in the air. With the game now 14v14, the Pumas used the penalty to kick into the 22, but their driving maul was held up over the line, but another strong driving maul minutes later saw Faf de Klerk sent to the bin for collapsing it, and as de la Fuente returned to the pitch, the Pumas used their 2-man advantage to eventually send Matías Moroni over for the try, Boffelli’s conversion again making it a 3-point game with 11 minutes remaining. With Etzebeth returning, South Africa were back on the attack, and another strong lineout drive saw them earn a second penalty try of the game, with Sclavi making his way to the sin bin for the final minutes. with 5 minutes remaining and de Klerk back on the pitch, the hosts were able to add a sweetener to the victory by putting Kurt-Lee Arendse over with the final play of the game to put an extra shine on the scoreline, but the 38-21 victory was not enough to overturn New Zealand at the top of the table.

Costly Call

Why did South Africa go for goal just before half time? Granted Frans Steyn is an expert at kicking from range, but that is still a risky kick, and in this match the reward just didn’t make sense.

In a one-off match it would be understandable, as it sends a message to the opposition that any penalties around the halfway line could be 3 points, while with the score at 14-0 it made it a 3-score game. But this was not just any game, this was a match where the Boks needed to score 3 tries more than their opponent and win by a 40-point margin, so at 14-0, a penalty kick doesn’t really help much.

But it’s not as if South Africa were even really struggling. They had dominated the vast majority of the half and were winning penalties with most attacks, so even if the driving maul wasn’t working at 100% they should have still felt comfortable about kicking down into the Pumas 22 and putting together one more attack before halftime, which incidentally would have taken away the couple of minutes that the Pumas utilised to score their own try.

It may not seem like much at the one moment, but it highlights the importance of each decision, as what could have been a halftime lead of 21-0 (and maybe even another yellow card for the Pumas) ended up becoming a 17-7 lead. One could argue that this was the decision that lost them the Championship.

Penalised

If you thought Australia’s discipline was poor, the Pumas said “Hold my beer” and put on a masterclass of how not to play defensively, with penalties coming with far too much frequency.

It’s something that we sadly see too often with the Pumas in recent years: if you play one-up rugby against them then their defensive line will dominate you, but if you look for the short passes around or in the contact—as South Africa were doing here, running hard and then offloading in contact—it puts the defence on the back foot and they are too slow to reorganise, leading to a number of cheap offside penalties and then stupid penalties at the breakdown as players try to slow the ball down to give the defence time to recover.

And then there were also the moronic penalties from Joel Sclavi. Brought on to sure up a struggling scrum, his dumb and wholly avoidable penalties ended 2 promising attacks for the Pumas 5m for the South African line, before he ended his game by collapsing a maul for the penalty try that eventually secured the game for South Africa.

Argentina have shown that on their day they can beat anyone. But if they want to start beating other top teams with regularity, which they will need to in order to win a tournament, then Michael Cheika desperately needs to work hard on preparing a defence that can stay organised and retreat with the same effectiveness as they do coming forward.

feat rugby the rugby championship banner

2022 Rugby Championship Round 5: Argentina v South Africa

2022 Rugby Championship Round 5: Argentina v South Africa

After a few days of arguing who messed up more out of Mathieu Raynal and Bernard Foley, we finally reached the second half of round 5, which saw the Pumas hosting South Africa in Buenos Aires. The Springboks had stuck with the same starting XV that demolished Australia 2 weeks ago but went behind after 8 minutes when Franco Mostert’s hands in the ruck allowed Emiliano Boffelli to kick a penalty from halfway, though Damian Willemse soon cancelled this out with a penalty of his own from much closer in and both kickers missed their next attempt from range. It was the South Africans who made the first chance of note, going to the blind side created off a lineout maul to get Canan Moodie up to the try line, and while Jaden Hendrikse was held up with his pick-and-go, it was only through the efforts of Santiago Carreras, who had been in an offside position, leading to a penalty try for the visitors. Boffelli soon cut the lead with a penalty, but the Boks won a penalty off the restart and went to the corner, and while they were unable to drive the maul over, the ball went out to the backs and Hendrikse soon found space on the fringe of a ruck to snipe over between the posts. As the penalty count began to rise from the Pumas, the Springboks took full advantage, going to the corner again and driving Malcolm Marx over for their third try, Argentina welcoming Carreras back to the pitch but now down 6-22. A clever lineout move saw Siya Kolisi release Marx into the Pumas 22, and with the defence under heavy pressure, a series of penalties saw Gonzalo Bertranou sent to the bin, but South Africa were unable to add another try before the break, as Mostert fumbled the lineout and though he eventually knocked the ball backwards, referee James Doleman decreed that as the ball was initially lost forward and Mostert never recovered control, it was a knock-on.

If the first half had been mainly fought in the tight, the second half was a display of open rugby as both teams looked to play the ball with very little thought for it’s security, and while the Pumas were suddenly looking a threat despite the numerical disadvantage, poor passing and handling skills—and an interception from Damian de Allende—cost them a couple of early chances. However the extra pressure was drawing penalties from the Springboks, which led to Willie le Roux being sent to the bin on the hour, though yet another handling error from the Pumas allowed South Africa to clear their lines. The hosts finally got across the line on 65 minutes as Cubelli went off the back of a scrum only to be held up over the line, however Kwagga Smith’s actions to hold him up were deemed illegal, resulting in a penalty try and a yellow card for the flanker. And with a 2-man advantage, the Pumas were soon scoring again, with a flat inside pass from Marcos Kremer releasing Matías Moroni, who rounded any remaining defenders to ground under the posts—despite every attempt from the TMO to find a loss of control in the grounding. With their lead cut to 2 but le Roux returning to the field, a penalty allowed the Boks their first real opportunity in the Pumas 22 since the first half, and a series of phases battering the home defence soon saw Damian de Allende fight his way over beneath the posts, Frans Steyn’s conversion making it a 2-score game with 5 minutes remaining. And the Boks secured the win in the final minute as they spread the ball through the hands to release Makazole Mapimpi down the left, with the wing drawing the final defender and playing the ball back inside to Marx for his second try, Steyn kicking the conversion for a 20-36 victory.

Disjointed

Have this Argentina side ever played together before? You wouldn’t have thought it from the way they attacked in this game! To say they looked disjointed is somewhat of an understatement.

Highly experienced scrum half Tomás Cubelli was throwing passes to the knees of his locks and behind his centres, floated wide passes were dropping between players, while the timing was off every time the Pumas tried a soft pop of the ball into the hands of someone coming on to it at pace. Even a couple of promising cross-kicks to space on the left wing early on were wasted as they came with centres hugging the touchline rather than the speedy wings who could have converted these chances into points.

Moroni’s try showed just how dangerous they can be when they get the timing and the passing right—and even that pass from Kremer was right on the border between flat and forward—and such was their dominance for much of the second half, a more accurate performance could have seen the Pumas going into the final round of still in with a chance of winning the Championship.

Beatable Boks

We’ve seen it a number of times since the World Cup: the defending champions are beatable, you just need to play them the right way. And the right way to do so is to take the game to them and challenge them by playing an open attacking game.

By playing a game that focuses on playing tight and getting forward dominance in the set piece, as the British & Irish Lions did on their most recent tour, you are playing into the hands of arguably the most dominant pack in World Rugby; and while the Pumas won a couple of penalties against Frans Malherbe at the scrum in the first half, this allowed the Springboks to take control of the game and move the ball—and Pumas pack—around the pitch at their leisure, keeping the backs poised and fresh for the moments that they were needed, such as Hendrikse’s try.

However, the moment that you start trying to vary your attack, with balls back inside, clever cross-kicks, crash balls and working the ball out wide to create overlaps, the Springboks will find themselves stretched and—as good as they are defensively—even they will not be able to cover every gap. And no offense to Jesse Kriel, but the absence of Lukhanyo Am just makes the Boks even more vulnerable.

That’s not to say that a varied attacking game will win you the game. You still need to try to match the Boks in the set piece and find a way to deal with their physicality, their aerial dominance and increasingly diverse attacking game. But by taking the game to them in attack, you’re giving yourself the best chance to win and giving the fans a spectacle at the same time.

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

Hello and welcome to my look at the third week of the Autumn Tests. With us now in World Rugby’s Test window, this weekend was jam packed with action. Jonathan Sexton celebrated his 100ᵗʰ Ireland cap by scoring one of Ireland’s 9 tries in their 60-5 demolition of Japan, New Zealand’s trip to Rome saw them win 9-47 against a passionate Italian team, England ran riot in a 69-3 win over a Tongan team who spent over 30 minutes of the game with just 13 men on the pitch, a late Malcolm Marx try earned South Africa an 18-23 victory over an injury-hit Welsh team, France held on to defeat a resurgent Argentina 29-20, while Ewan Ashman’s Scotland debut began with an earlier-than-expected arrival off the bench and ended with him scoring a crucial try in a 15-13 win over Australia.


Ireland

This performance was a huge statement from Ireland. Every single player on the pitch from 1-23 showed that they were comfortable with the ball in hand. The grunts in the pack expected to make the hard yards were also comfortable with space in front of them, and the rest of the team excel in space, with many also happy to take on a bit of contact. But more than just being happy to take the ball and run, every single one of them was comfortable enough to play the ball around with exceptional handling skills.

Granted they will face tougher tests than this Japan team, but it is clear that the skills are there from the players. And that means that they will be super dangerous in broken play, as if anyone makes a break, they have the skills to exploit it and not just keep the attack going, but get it to the players who can best take advantage. Not only this, but just the threat of every player being able to carry or pass if they get the ball means that the defence must stay alert to any possibility, as if a defender leaves his man to make a dominant double tackle, the ball carrier can ship it off to the now-undefended teammate, while a defender who tries to drift onto the next man too quickly will leave a gap for the ball carrier to run through.

The key now for Ireland is to make this a part of their regular gameplan, and not just a party trick they bring out when facing weaker opposition.

Japan

Japan are a very good team, but they looked very poor at the weekend. While part of this was likely due to a lack of time playing Test rugby since the World Cup, they also really struggled for a lack of physicality.

They are a very accurate and technical team, but they lack the physicality to stand up to the elite teams. While they try to play expansive rugby, too much of their intricate play is done behind the gain line, which puts them in trouble if the defence works as an organised unit. But even more worrying is their inability to cope with the driving maul, getting routinely pushed back 20+ metres during this match, which was also their undoing in the World Cup against the Springboks. Until they find a way to front up to the opposition and compete legally at the maul, they will always struggle to consistently compete against the top teams, who will just take ever penalty opportunity and kick to touch in the knowledge that they will then gain another 20 metres with the driving maul.

Italy

Forget the score, as it does not do this performance from the Azzurri any justice. They caused the All Blacks some serious problems, with New Zealand taking 28 minutes to even get on the scoreboard. The defence was aggressive, shutting down space and putting pressure on an inexperienced midfield who were not used to playing together, while players were causing the Kiwis an absolute nightmare at the breakdown and winning a number of turnovers and penalties. Granted they have some areas they need to improve—notably around the way they deal with the driving maul while effectively covering the fringes for a player peeling off—but if they can defend with this organisation regularly then their days of being on the wrong end of massive scorelines may be ending.

But it wasn’t just the defence that looked improved, as the attack looked far more capable too. Steven Varney has added an impressive kicking game to his dangerous running, Monty Ioane excelled and Matteo Minozzi continued to prove himself as one of the stars of the team. But not just that, they adapted their game to the opposition, by frequently testing the New Zealand back 3 under the high ball, with chasers either getting up to compete—which should have left to an opening try for the Azzurri if Karl Dickson had paid attention to the game and played advantage rather than immediately blowing for a penalty— or positioning themselves exactly where the Kiwi catcher would need to jump, putting them under real pressure.

It may still be early days under Kieran Crowley, but it feels like the team has built on the infrastructure that Conor O’Shea introduced and the youth that Franco Smith capped to take things to a new level—and this is all being done with Jake Polledri still out injured! I hope that things may finally be on the up for Italy.

New Zealand

This was a very scrappy performance from the All Blacks. Starting centres Braydon Ennor and Quinn Tupaea had a grand total of 10 caps between them (including the 2 being earned in this match) and with the pack being given a hard time at the breakdown and the Italian defence coming up hard in midfield, it significantly added to the pressure that the pair were under.

Of course, they improved as the game went on and the Italians tired, but this really highlighted an issue that the All Blacks currently have at centre. A team who once had Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams fighting for 2 spots in the XV is now seriously lacking. Ngani Laumape has left the country and now wants to play for Tonga after being continually overlooked, Anton Lienert-Brown brings experience but never seems to have the same impact when starting as he does off the bench and Jack Goodhue has been out since April with an ACL injury, so you can never guarantee how quickly he will get back to his best.

While they clearly still have options beyond that, they are severely lacking experience. Rieko Ioane my be closing on 50 caps but the majority have been earned on the wing, where he is still being used far too often by Ian Foster. 22-year-old Tupaea has 6 caps and just a few years of Super Rugby under his belt. David Havili may have experience, but has only recently transitioned to centre from the back 3, while 4-cap Ennor also originally came on the Super Rugby scene as a winger a few seasons back.

With the World Cup less than 2 weeks away, Ian Foster has a lot of questions in his midfield, and a limited number of games to find an answer.

England

England will certainly face much sterner tests, but on the performances in this match, a number of the youngsters should be starting the next match against Australia to gain some experience against Tier 1 international opposition. While George Furbank looked good at 10 against Tonga, the Australia game should be time for Marcus Smith to take over the reins of this team, while Freddie Steward looked much more secure at 15 than Elliot Daly ever did, with his height, ability in the air and all-round skillset reminding me of Jordie Barrett. Meanwhile on the wing, Adam Radwan has the kind of pace that will scare anyone, but needs to play against a team that will Test him defensively before he can truly be judged at this level, while Alex Mitchell deserves a chance to show what he can do as the starting 9 or England will have no experience at the position if Ben Youngs suddenly isn’t available right before the World Cup. Meanwhile in the pack, it’s time for Eddie Jones to stop pretending that Courtney Lawes is the best 6 in English rugby and move him back to lock, before moving Tom Curry to the flank where he belongs and playing an actual 8 in Alex Dombrandt, who put in a solid (and perhaps too unselfish) performance off the bench.

I understand the need to win every match in the Six Nations, but these Autumn Tests are a chance to experiment with the squad and give some youth/fringe players a chance. The ball is in Eddie Jones’ court, how many of these kids will get the chance they deserve?

Tonga

With how little time Tonga get to spend together as a team, they are already going to be struggling enough to defend, as it takes time to develop a trust and understanding with the players around them, allowing them to defend as a unit rather than a bunch of individuals. But they then go and make their job impossible when they spend so much of the match a man down. Between the yellow cards for Walter Fifita and Solomone Kata and the red card for Viliami Fine, Tonga spent 32 of the 80 minutes with a numerical disadvantage. When you’re playing that much of the game a man down, you’re never going to be able to defend properly. The discipline needs to be better!

While Fifita’s yellow may have been unfortunate, as he clearly tipped the ball up to try and recollect, going for a one-handed intercept these days will end badly nine times out of ten, while Kata can have no arguments as he struggled to get off the ground and took Jonny May out in the air. But Fine’s actions were moronic. The high tackle was bad enough but excusable as mistakes happen, but to then go in on Marcus Smith on the floor—even if he clearly made contact rather than with his elbow, as described by the ever-unreliable Ben Whitehouse—is disgusting and has no place in the sport.

It often feels like the Pacific Island teams get a bad rep for indiscipline, but its sadly incidents like this from Fine that cause this perception to remain, and it just does the team more harm as officials are then leaning towards expecting them to be doing something illegal if there is a chance. Tonga need to clean up their game fast to give themselves a better chance of competing in games.

Wales

3 years ago, the promising career of Ellis Jenkins looked like it could be reaching a premature end as he suffered an horrific knee injury in the final seconds of Wales match against the Springboks. At the weekend, he finally made his return to Test rugby against none other than South Africa, and in my mind was unfortunate not to come away with the Player of the Match award.

The Cardiff Rugby flanker has always been an impressively talented jackal, but looked at his best against the Boks once again. Jenkins was a key part of the Welsh defensive effort in a desperate rearguard that reminded me of their RWC2015 match against Australia. In his own 22 alone, he managed a turnover at a breakdown, an interception and a strip. Alongside these crucial interventions, he completed all 7 of his tackles, completed 10 passes and carried 4 times for 19 metres.

But even more than that, he even took over the captaincy of the team in the latter stages and dealt with referee Paul Williams so impressively. At 28 years old, he is in his prime and is at the point where he can and should be a key part of this squad.

If I was Wayne Pivac going forward and everyone was available for selection, I would be looking at this match’s back row (Jenkins, Wainwright and Basham) along with Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric as my core back row options. Taulupe Faletau’s impending return to Wales could see him get back to his best, which would also bring him into the unit, while Ross Moriarty would also provide another more experienced option in case of injuries, as could James Davies or Cardiff-bound Thomas Young or younger future stars like Leicester’s Tommy Reffell.

South Africa

South Africa may not have been able to slow things down as much as they would have liked at the weekend, but they still showed that they are a real threat regardless. This pack dominated the Welsh, destroying them in what few scrums there were, while the lineout drives also had great success, leading to a number of penalties and Malcolm Marx’s late try.

But the most incredible thing is the strength they have in depth. If the Springboks were to take all their players (for this hypothetical, let’s say that everyone is fit at the same time) and create 3 packs purely just starting players, no replacements) using their depth chart, I firmly believe that the “B” pack would be able to give most Tier 1 nations—and the “A” pack—and while the “C” pack may have only limited Test experience, it would likely still have the quality to compete with and beat many Tier 2 nations.

France

France tried something different and truly exciting to imagine at the weekend, by moving Romain Ntamack from 10 to 12 with Matthieu Jalibert at fly half. Sadly, such an exciting idea did not work as well in execution. The reason? Having a midfield of Jalibert, Ntamack and defensive lynchpin Gaël Fickou left the back line with very little in the way of physicality. Meanwhile outside them, Damian Penaud runs hard but is not a true crash ball runner, while Gabin Villière and Melvyn Jaminet are definitely not being picked for their physicality.

Without a more physical centre (Danty, Vincent or Vakatawa) or a wing who will also come into midfield, Les Bleus lack the strike runner to draw in defenders and create the space for the other players to exploit. Granted magicians like Dupont and Jalibert will still manage to find and create chances, but a more physical presence will make this easier.

Argentina

I love Santiago Cordero, but this experiment of using him at 10 for the Pumas needs to end. Unlike George Furbank, who was given the 10 shirt against Tonga late in the week, Cordero has never started a top flight domestic match at 10 but now finds himself playing there against Tier 1 opposition. I don’t doubt his talent, but he does not have the experience of playing the position at such a high level, and it is no surprise that his best moments generally seem to come in moments of broken play when he is acting more like an outside back.

It was no surprise to me that when Nicolás Sánchez entered the match Argentina suddenly looked much more structured in attack, while even his kicking game was more dangerous and pulled the team up the field, as well as directly leading to Mateo Carreras’ late try.

Carreras will get very few minutes at 10 at Gloucester. Adam Hastings has been brought in to lead the back line at that position and while Lloyd Evans is questionable as a second choice, there is a bright young English fly half just behind him in local lad George Barton, who has just turned 21, while Billy Twelvetrees is also an option covering the position in emergencies. If Carreras wants to play fly half, then he will need to leave Kingsholm, but it is unlikely that he will find many clubs where he would be able to step in as the starting 10 that Argentina needs. Rather, he should be moved back to the back 3 where he shines for the Pumas and a specialist fly half brought in to gain international experience.

Scotland

This win was a huge statement for the Scottish front row. While Scotland defended well across the pitch, the front row had a key job to do at scrum time by trying to stop the Wallabies gaining a platform at the scrum to launch their attacks off. Against the front row options Australia had in this match, that is no mean feat, even if Taniela Tupou’s impact on anything other that Scott Johnson’s head was minimal. But the Scots did it, causing nightmares at the scrum, while debutant Ewan Ashman, on much earlier than expected following an early injury to George Turner looked completely at home on the international stage, including a finish in the corner that wings would be proud of!

The scrum is vital in international rugby, both as a chance to win penalties and also as a platform to launch attacks from. If the Scottish front row can continue to play like this, it will put them in a great position to challenge for their first Six Nations tournament victory.

Australia

The Wallabies are missing some vital names in their back line for this Test series. Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s decisions to not come on tour and instead return to preseason with their club teams in Japan have robbed Australia of the men who appeared to turn the team’s fortunes around during the Rugby Championship.

While I feel that the return of James O’Connor will cover for Cooper’s absence, Kerevi is an entirely different matter. The centre was playing at a level that was surely bringing him into contention for World Rugby Player of the Year, but more than that, I don’t think that they have a direct replacement. While I have previously talked about Hunter Paisami as the clear replacement for Kerevi at 12, he is not a like-for-like replacement, with his physicality much more focused towards defence, while Kerevi was more offensively focused with defence coming as he gained experience. What makes this loss of Kerevi even more pronounced is the absence of Marika Koroibete from the touring party, as he chose to remain in Australia following the birth of his child, which leaves the back line with limited physical options.

Can Paisami adapt his game to bring a more offensive side? Or will the Wallabies need to adapt their selections in the pack to include a couple more dynamic carriers in the starting XV, such as Tupou (once he recovers from concussion) and Pete Samu?

rugby autumn nations series logo

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

80 days on from the beginning of the tournament, the 2021 Rugby Championship reached its final day, which would see a fourth and final double header. First up on the final day was Australia’s chance to secure 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings with an “away” match against winless Argentina.

After both Quade Cooper and Emiliano Boffelli missed early penalty attempts in the opening minutes, it was Cooper who opened the scoring off the tee following a scrum offence, while Santiago Carreras’ attempted drop goal from halfway following an Australian goal-line drop-out sailed just wide. In a tight first half, the Wallabies finally found a breakthrough as the half hour approached, after a series of infringements at the lineout saw Tomás Lavanini sent to the sin bin, making him the most-carded player in the history of Test rugby. Though the Pumas sacked the resulting Australian lineout, the Wallabies successfully set up a new maul, which successfully escorted Folau Fainga’a to the line for the opening try. With Lavanini still in the bin, the Wallabies struck again at a lineout, setting the maul, but with Hooper peeling off at the back and feeding a looping Fainga’a. After drawing the defence, the hooker sent Rob Valentini through on a crash ball, and the back row duly released Andrew Kellaway to extend the lead. As the half came to an end and Lavanini returned to the pitch, Emilia Boffelli finally got the South Americans on the scoreboard with a penalty following a series of offences by the Australians 5 metres out from their line, cutting the hosts’ lead at the break to 3-15.

If it felt like a mistake to settle for 3 points at the end of the first half, it looked even worse just minutes into the second period, as Samu Kerevi and Andrew Kellaway came around the corner at the last minte to create a numbers advantage, and a double pump from Cooper created the gap for Kerevi to go over. 10 minutes later, another series of phases in the Pumas 22 ended in a try as Kellaway successfully dummied Matías Moroni and broke through the tackle of Santiago Chocobares to go over for his second try. Just minutes later, Australia used the same lineout move that proved so successful earlier in the match, but as the Pumas defence tightened up to protect against the crash ball, Fainga’a instead spread the ball to the backs, and when Len Ikitau attacked a massive gap out wide, he drew the defence and flicked the ball onto Kellaway to complete his hat-trick. With the game out of sight, the game opened up more going into the final quarter as the replacements came on, and when the Pumas finally made it back into the Australian 22 for the first time of note since the first half, replacement loosehead Thomas Gallo forced himself over for a try on his debut. Argentina were finishing on a high, and when they found themselves 5m out from the Wallabies line, Chocobares sniped off the back of a ruck but was stopped just short, only to transfer the ball to Gallo, who forced his way over to dot down for a second try, which gave the score a much more respectable look. As the match came to an end, Australian captain Michael Hooper was sent to the bin for killing the ball following a break from Julián Montoya, but after the Pumas went to the corner, the Wallabies successfully held out the maul to complete a 17-32 victory.

Julián Montoya is a fantastic hooker and a great all-round player. However, as captain of the Pumas, I think that he made a costly mistake today. This came in the final moments of the first half. At 0-15 down and with Lavanini having just returned to the pitch following his yellow card, the Pumas were camped on the Wallabies’ 5m line. The wallabies had given away 4 penalties in succession for a range of offences and arguably should have had a man in the bin as a no-arms tackle from Taniela Tupou on Gonzalo Bertranou went unpunished, but were just being put on a warning.

At this point, Montoya chose to take the easy 3 points to guarantee they were off the mark, but for me there was only one real option here: continue pushing for the line, either with another lineout or a tap-and-go penalty. This was the first time that they had been in any position to threaten the try line in the entire game, and (barring any unforced errors) should have resulted in either a try for the Pumas or a yellow card for one of the Australians at the next penalty (or possibly both).

However by going for the posts, Argentina let the Wallabies off the hook. They didn’t get back into the Australian 22 for 20 minutes, by which point the warning was long gone and Australia had scored 3 more tries to run away with the game. While I still feel like the Wallabies would have gone on to win the game, I think that a different decision here by Montoya could have led to a closer game.

Australia are in a historic spot. Having started the tournament with 2 bad defeats to the All Blacks, the Wallabies won 4 consecutive matches in the tournament for the first time ever on their way to finishing 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament standings and climbing to 3ʳᵈ in the World rankings.

While they are certainly on the up and have developed so much more depth by bringing through the kids over the last couple of seasons and now bringing back a number of veterans from abroad, fans should not get carried away just yet. While they have largely dominated the games against Argentina, they have never fully killed the game off, and that let the Pumas back in to some degree in both matches. Against a better team, these lapses in control could have proved critical.

Australia are on the up, but they are not the 3ʳᵈ best team in the world, they are instead there through the weakness of weekly updates to the World rankings, which will see winning teams leapfrog teams that are not playing due to the way the global calendar is set out (expect to see a couple of the Six Nations teams rise up the rankings in the spring).

The key for the Wallabies now is to build on this in their Autumn Tests against Japan, Scotland, England and Wales, continuing the strong performances, getting as many wins as they can (I think 3 is realistic, potentially 4 depending which England turns up) and hopefully changing the team up a little to avoid a reliance on one or two stars. If the Wallabies can do this, that is when it is time to start getting excited.

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

With the 100ᵗʰ Test match between South Africa and New Zealand out of the way, it was time for the hosts Australia to take on an Argentina team that had been left out of a midweek photo session for the tournament. After such a close match in the opener of this double-header, it was always going to be a tough affair to live up to, and sadly for all but the home fans, this was not going to be anywhere near as close a match.

The Pumas have struggled throughout the tournament but had the chance to take an early lead, only for Emiliano Boffelli to curl an eminently kickable penalty wide. The Pumas were quickly made to rue this missed chance, as a break from Samu Kerevi brought the hosts up into the Argentina 22, and as the ball was spread wide, Reece Hodge slipped out of Lucio Cinti’s tackle to go over for the opening try. Australia were quickly taking control of this game, and when Len Ikitau was stopped just short of the try line after winning the race to a Quade Cooper grubber, Kerevi was able to pick and go off the base of the ruck and force his way over beneath the posts. The Pumas finally got on the board with a Boffelli penalty as Rob Valentini was caught obstructing the chase at the restart, but the Wallabies were still clearly in control and thought they had a third try on the half hour as Nic White sniped off the back of a ruck and dive for the line, only to ground the ball against the base of the post short of the line (something that was previously a try but no longer) and lose control forwards, however the Wallabies had a penalty advantage and Cooper kicked the 3 points for a 17-3 halftime lead.

The Pumas came out firing after the break, and after a penalty allowed them to kick to the corner, the pack drove captain Julián Montoya over for a crucial try, however Boffelli missed the conversion from out wide and a penalty that followed son after. The strong start to the half was soon hurt by indiscipline though, and what should have been a penalty for the Pumas was reversed as Marcos Kremer tripped Reece Hodge during advantage, resulting in the flanker being sent to the bin. With the man advantage, Australia made their way downfield to the Argentina line, but were forced to settle for a James O’Connor penalty after Pablo Matera killed the ball. However, Australia secured the win with just over ten minutes left as James O’Connor received the ball 5m out, took a step to his right before popping the ball back inside to his left for Andrew Kellaway to go over, and though the final pass looked forwards, none of the officials felt that there was any need to check, allowing the replacement fly half to kick the Wallabies into a 27-8 lead that they would hold until the final whistle.

At 24 years old and comfortable at both lock or flanker, Marcos Kremer is a fantastic player on his day; a great enforcer who will carry, tackle and cause problems at the breakdown all day long. However, on a bad day, he is more than a little reminiscent of his fellow lock Tomás Lavanini, with a lack of discipline that too often proved costly.

In the second half of this match, the Pumas were beginning to get stronger. They had a try and were within 9 points of the Wallabies, despite Boffelli having left 8 points on the field with missed kicks, and were putting pressure on the hosts to win penalties. Unfortunately, twice in the space of 5 minutes, a penalty in the Australian half was reversed due to an offence by Kremer, the first as he shoulder charged Marika Koroibete after the whistle, the second his trip on Reece Hodge that saw him sent to the bin. Now with the second incident, I think there are certainly questions about why Matthew Carley took so long to blow the whistle when it was clear that no advantage was coming, but the point is that Kremer so frequently lacks the discipline to avoid these unnecessary incidents, which ends up costing his team.

The Pumas are in a bad place right now. They’re defensively weak, and struggling to create many chances in attack, with their superstar wingers barely getting a chance to show their quality. When they get penalties, they need to make the most of them, not have them overturned, which then allows their opponents to not only clear their lines but also set up their own attacks. If Kremer can continue to play the enforcer but cut out these stupid penalties, it will go a long way to helping the Pumas be more competitive.

The battle for number 10

Go back a couple of months and it looked like Noah Lolesio was at a point where he would be taking over the Australian number 10 jersey on a long-term basis. Suddenly, it looks like he has dropped out of the 22, with Quade Cooper coming out of the cold and James O’Connor returning from injury.

Both Cooper and O’Connor are incredibly talented players who have had rollercoaster careers. Yet now that they are in their 30s, they have both matured as players and also developed into true leaders at the fly half position, and I would argue that they give the Wallabies the best chance of winning right now—just as long as Lolesio is kept in the squad to learn off them.

But what we also saw on Saturday was a great way for the pair to be used. As the specialist 10, Cooper makes sense as the starter, especially while Nic White is being entrusted with the starting spot at 9. But then you have the chance to replace the pair with O’Connor and Tate McDermott with 20-30 minutes left, and the pair can use their chemistry from playing together for the Reds and McDermott’s threat around the fringes of the breakdown to terrorise a tiring defence.

Not only that, but O’Connor’s versatility is perfect for the Australian bench, as he is also able to come on to cover fullback should the starter get hurt or provide injury cover or a different tactical option at centre alongside Cooper.

With the World Cup just a couple of years away, could these two be the ones to lead Australia to victory, before finally passing over the torch to the next generation.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v New Zealand

With Australia having completed the double over South Africa, it was time for part 2 of the double header, which saw winless Argentina face off against unbeaten New Zealand. With 2 matches against World Champions coming up, The All Blacks gave a number of big names a rest, but it was still a highly capable side sent out to face the Pumas, and it took just 5 minutes for them to open the scoring, with a break from Hoskins Sotutu releasing Will Jordan, who was stopped just short, only for Patrick Tuipulotu to crash over from short range. Emiliano Boffelli and Jordie Barrett traded penalties, but the Kiwis were looking for tries, and came close on 2 more occasions in the opening quarter, with both Jordan and Reiko Ioane having scores ruled out. However it was third time lucky on 26 minutes, as New Zealand got the shove on at a 5m scrum, allowing TJ Perenara to attack the blind side and—with Jordie Barrett attracting the attention of the wide defender—outpace the Pumas back row to the corner. Just minutes later, Reiko Ioane found a gap in midfield and utilised his break to get away, only to be hauled down just short of the line. He successfully dotted the ball down but a referral to the TMO found that he had got back to his feet while held by the tackler so he again found his try ruled out. With the half coming to a close, a break from Ardie Savea and a clever chip down the right wing brought the All Blacks up to the Argentina try line again, and after a number of phases, the ball squirted out as Samisoni Taukei’aho was stopped short, only for Savea to flick the ball into the hands of Tupou Vaa’i, who had to simply take one step to make it in for another try and a 3-24 halftime lead.

After the break, it was the Pumas who got on the scoresheet first through another Boffelli penalty, but New Zealand stretched their lead just minutes later as Will Jordan’s flick-on from Quinn Tupaea allowed Ardie Savea to draw the covering defender and send Taukei’aho over in the corner. Despite still clearly being second best, the Pumas were certainly more of an attacking threat in the second half, and finally got a try when Boffelli caught Santiago Carreras’ inch-perfect cross-kick and dotted down under pressure from Barrett and Jordan. However they almost conceded off the restart as Carreras’ clearance was charged down by Finlay Christie, only for the replacement scrum half to lose control as he tried to dot down. As the second half went on, the Pumas continued to grow into the game and start creating chances, but they kept finding ways to bring their attacks to disappointing ends, and with just a few minutes left in the game, the All Blacks finished with a flourish as Scott Barrett carried through contact and threw a lovely offload out the back of his hand for Vaa’i to go over for his second try of the game, with Jordie Barrett converting to secure a 13-36 win that should see the All Blacks jump to the top of the World Rankings.

Out of place

When I noted last week that Santiago Carreras was an option to cover fly half, I sure as hell wasn’t expecting Mario Ledesma to give him the 10 shirt this week and put Domingo Miotti on the bench! While Carreras has covered the position at times and certainly has the skill set, he has never started there at Test level, nor in Super Rugby or the Premiership.

And that inexperience certainly showed in this game, with 2 exit kicks charged down and a few other issues. But he certainly grew into the game, and came to life even more as the game opened up in the second half. If I’m being completely honest though, what he did best could have honestly been done from the fullback position.

Could Carreras be the next star at 10 for the Pumas? I certainly think he has the skillset, but he would have to start playing the position almost exclusively at both Test and club level, which isn’t going to happen considering Gloucester have just brought in Adam Hastings. At 23 years old, Carreras is at a crucial point in his career. He has the potential to become one of the world’s best, but to do that, he needs to start playing the same position week in week out. And if he’s going to be prioritising one position, I feel that it has to be fullback.

The best three

It’s absolutely crazy to me that Hoskins Sotutu is not a regular in this All Blacks side. Granted there are plenty of fantastic back row options available even with Sam Cane missing, but the Blues number 8 provides everything you want from the position: pace, power, good handling skills and an analytical brain. Ardie Savea may be the incumbent, but he could easily move to 7 with Cane absent, as he did for this game.

With 2 matches coming up against a wounded South African team, picking the right back row will be vital. You want a back row dynamic enough to run rings around the Springboks if they try to play an open game, but also a back row big enough and strong enough to front up to the might of the Springboks.

For me, there is only one trio to pick. Ardie Savea is guaranteed to start somewhere in the back row, and I would start him at 7, with Sotutu retaining his place at number 8, and the impressive Akira Ioane returning at 6. By picking this trio, you have 3 strong, dynamic ball carriers for the Springbok defence to deal with, while Ioane and Savea working as enforcers in defence. However, this is Ian Foster picking the team, so don’t be shocked to see Sotutu drop straight back out of the 23.

Step backwards

Over recent years, the Pumas have taken so many steps forward, but suddenly appear to be falling apart. One thing that has consistently been the case in recent weeks is that the team is creating chances in most games, but then making some error to bring the chance to an end. The more I have thought about it, the more I think that this is at least in part due to the loss of the Jaguares.

Through the 4 seasons of the Jaguares being part of Super Rugby, we saw a clear improvement in the quality of the national team, as the vast majority of the players were training and playing together every week. And while that may have limited them against the elite teams, it was enough to at least make them able to challenge in every match.

However, with COVID stopping cross-border Super Rugby competition, the Jaguares were left out in the cold, and that has remained the case as South Africa’s teams have joined the Ultimate Rugby Championship, while the Australian and New Zealand franchises have been joined by Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua in the new Super Rugby Pacific. This means that they are the only Tier 1 nation without a single club in a top-tier league.

Having their squad spread all around the globe, it makes it so much harder to bring everyone together sufficiently enough to build up any chemistry. Similarly, it is harder for prospective future stars to make the step up, as they will likely need to get on the international scene before a top flight club takes an interest in them.

But where can Argentina look to re-establish the Jaguares? It’s unlikely that Super Rugby Pacific will be looking to add more teams any time soon. The Ultimate Rugby Championship is focused over just a couple of time zones even if there is some distance between South Africa and the other nations involved. The Premiership and Top 14 are both domestic leagues for just 1 single country each. The only established professional league that would make sense would be the MLR, but that league isn’t yet to the level of competition that Argentina need to challenge at the top level, though it would at least allow them to potentially bring back a few of their internationals while also find new young talent to then potentially pick up contracts in the elite leagues.

In the meantime though, don’t be shocked to see the Pumas continue to struggle as they adapt to the loss of the Jaguares.

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: Argentina v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v South Africa

After last week’s double header, the Rugby Championship saw just one match take place this weekend. In a normal year, this match would have taken place in Argentina, but the continued impacts of COVID meant that the match was played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, which hosted last week’s bonus point win for the Springboks.

While the venue may have stayed the same, both teams were heavily changed, and despite a positive opening couple of minutes from the Pumas, their indiscipline soon began to cost them and Handré Pollard duly kicked 3 penalties in the opening quarter. However a Jasper Wiese penalty from the restart gave Argentina a penalty deep in the South African half and Domingo Miotti put his team on the board off the tee. Pollard soon extended the lead back to 9 with another penalty, and just minutes later added another as Rodrigo Bruni was sent to the bin for his team’s persistent offending. Despite being a man down though, it was the Pumas who ended the half with the chance to score as Miotti lined up a penalty from close to halfway, but he was unable to hit the target and the Pumas went into the break down 3-15.

Much like in the first half, it was the Pumas who started better after the break, and they had the chance to open the half’s scoring with a Miotti penalty after Pollard took out Juan Cruz Mallía in the air, only for the young fly half to pull it to the left. However the Boks soon found themselves putting together phases in the Argentina 22, and when Willie le Roux came on a late loop from the blind side, he successfully created an overlap to send Makazole Mapimpi over in the corner. The Springboks were over for another try just minutes later as they secured their own ball at a lineout 5m from the Argentina line and ripped apart the Pumas’ maul defence for Malcolm Marx to go over. With substitutes now coming on, the game began to open up as the Boks looked to secure the bonus point, and the Pumas began to get more possession and space in which to use it, and when the Pumas drove a maul up to the Springbok try line just after the hour it looked like they would finally score, only for a handling error as the maul went to ground. As the clock ticked into the red, the Pumas had another chance to score as replacement back row Juan Martín González was released down the left wing, but his pass back inside was slightly behind Santiago Carreras, who was unable to collect cleanly and the loose ball fell into the hands of Lukhanyo Am, who cleaned things up, and lock Tomás Lavanini added yet another yellow card to his Test record or a late shot on Pollard. With the clock in the red, the Boks could have kicked the ball out to end the match but chose to go in search of the bonus point one last time, only for Pollard to miss touch, allowing the Pumas to work the way back down the field, and when they found themselves on the try line, Pablo Matera came crashing in on an inside line, and when he found contact on the line, he successfully managed to spin his body round to get to ground and score his team’s first try of this year’s tournament, with Nicolás Sánchez kicking the conversion to end the game as a 10-29 victory for the World Champions.

Paying the penalty

With the amount of penalties the Pumas were giving away, there was no chance for them to even get in the game for much of the match, let alone compete for the win! while the odd penalty is acceptable, the Pumas were playing on the edge far too frequently and were duly punished, with Handré Pollard’s kicks alone enough to win the match. But the real issue was their discipline at the lineout, where they tried every possible tactic—both legal and illegal—to disrupt the maul, with the outcome either being the maul trundling on or a penalty to the Boks. And of course the World Champions took every advantage of this, regularly kicking their penalties to touch and working their way down the field in a matter of phases as the Pumas illegally halted their mauls.

If you are struggling to defend the lineout and driving maul, then you need to limit the number of times the opposition get to utilise that set piece, and that means remaining disciplined.

Mishandled

Despite all-but playing themselves out of the game, the crazy thing is that the Pumas still had the chance to somehow come away with an undeserving victory. Argentina made a number of chances, only to shoot themselves in the foot at the wrong moment.

In an alternate universe, Gloucester wing Santiago Carreras could have come away with a brace of tries today, with the first one coming in the opening half as he ran a clinical line off the drifting Santiago Chocobares, only for the centre to delay his pass too long and throw it forward. Then with the clock in the red at the end of the game, it looked like he was certain to score as Juan Martín González played the ball inside to him just short of the line, but the pass was a little behind him and he was unable to take it cleanly, leading to it being knocked on. If the first chance was a possible try, then this was a guaranteed try.

Similarly, the Pumas would surely have scored just after the hour had they been more patient when their maul went to ground just short of the line, but rather than the first man in securing the ball, they tried to take it themselves and fumbled the ball forward, wasting what to that point had been the best chance of the game.

And sadly for the Pumas, there was yet another wasted chance in the latter stages of the second half. As the game opened up, Argentina brought their attack to the left and Chocobares fed Lucio Cinti, who looked like he may have the pace to beat the covering defence to the corner flag, only for play to be called back as Chocobares’ pass again drifted forward.

To me, these errors came largely as a result of 2 things. First of all, their lack of control in the game meant that they were almost panicking and trying to score as quickly as possible. But probably more costly was the constant chopping and changing of the team, which limits the chance for players to learn their exact timings to play off each other.

Despite the indiscipline, this was a much better performance from the Pumas than last week, expect to see further improvement as the tournament goes on.

Stunted

In theory, the Springbok backline had a good balance to it, with 2 highly physical centres in Am and Damian de Allende, 2 elite wings and 2 playmakers in Handré Pollard and Willie le Roux. Yet despite this, there was only one time that the Boks really had success going wide: when le Roux’s late loop set up Mapimpi’s try. Other than this, the South African attack looked very poor, generally just going sideways without committing defenders, and allowing the Pumas’ defence to drift with them and cut down the space outside.

First things first, congratulations to the Boks for actually trying to play rugby a couple of times, but the attempts were poor. De Allende and a forward or 2 running dummy lines would immediately force the Pumas defence to hold their positions and create the space for the wings to exploit. Hopefully like with the Pumas, we will see the Springboks continue to try and play more expansive attacking rugby with more success as the tournament goes on.

feat rugby the rugby championship banner