Rugby Championship 2020: Team of the Tournament

Rugby Championship 2020: Team of the Tournament

With the Rugby Championship over for another year, there is only 1 thing left to do: pick my Team of the Tournament. This year’s competition was a little different, with World Champions South Africa sitting out as they looked to get back on track following the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving us with a Tri Nations featuring just New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, while the entire tournament was played in Australia to make COVID precautions easier to deal with.

New Zealand may have won the tournament, but they will not look back on this year fondly as they struggled for any consistency under Ian Foster and lost in consecutive matches to Argentina and Australia. The Wallabies and Pumas meanwhile played out 2 draws that left them unable to claim the top spot, though they should be proud of their accomplishments given the inexperience of the Australia team and the lack of post-COVID rugby for the Pumas.

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As always, I’d love to hear who you would pick, but without further ado, my Team of the 2020 Tri Nations is:

1) Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro: The loosehead position was one of the harder ones to pick due to the variation in the starting players. However for me, Tetaz Chaparro’s absence was keenly felt when he wasn’t on the pitch as the scrums went from a weapon to a liability.

2) Julián Montoya: A number of hookers showed moments of real quality, but Montoya got the nod here. A long-term understudy at international level for Agustín Creevy, Montoya has bags of experience at the international level despite just a handful of Test starts, and proved his quality as a key piece of Argentina’s robust defensive efforts. 

3) Taniela Tupou: The “Tongan Thor” may not have had things all his own way in the tournament, splitting time with Allan Ala’alatoa during the tournament, but when he was on the pitch, he added physicality and bite to Australia’s attack and defence, while also gaining an advantage over his opponents in the scrum.

4) Guido Petti: The Argentine lock sat out the last match as part of the fallout from the re-emergence of some controversial tweets, but ahead of that he was a key part of Argentina’s set piece, giving reliability on their own lineout throw while frequently stealing or hassling opposition ball.

5) Matt Philip: The Rebels lock may only have a handful of caps to his name, but he looks like he has been playing Test rugby for years – there can be no higher compliment than that. Philip looked controlled the lineout and also carried well to add more power to the Wallabies pack.

6) Pablo Matera: The Argentina captain led from the front and led by example. A key physical part of the Pumas defence with organised tackles and opportunistic turnovers. Meanwhile on attack, he carried hard and almost won Argentina their first Test against the Wallabies with a cultured kick forwards at the death that should have been finished by Santiago Cordero. I would call the Argentinian one of the best – but also most underrated – opensides in world rugby.

7) Sam Cane: Marcos Kremer was another key part of the Pumas’ defensive effort, while Michael Hooper added experience to a young back row. However I instead went for Sam Cane. He’s not the flashiest of players by any means, but is such a threat at the breakdown and always seems to be in the right place to make a key turnover, while also putting his body on the line for the win.

8) Rodrigo Bruni: Harry Wilson looked good and will get better as he gains experience at this level, but I went for Rodrigo Bruni this time around. He may not have played as much as his fellow number 8s, but when he was on the pitch he just added to the formidable Pumas defence. Argentina never looked stronger than when they had their first choice back row on the pitch.

9) Nic White: I may not be the biggest fan of White, but with such an inexperienced team around him and limitations at fly half, White did a key job of bringing experience and control to the game. I’m hoping hat Tate McDermott will be given more frequent game time moving forwards, as his youth and attacking ability would create a strong counterpoint to White’s control and kicking game.

10) Nicolás Sánchez: It had looked like Sánchez may be past his prime, but he was back with a bang in this tournament. While his attacking opportunities may have been a little limited, his control of the game was highlighted whenever he came off the pitch, while his kicking off the tee allowed the Pumas to keep the scoreboard ticking over despite a largely defensive performance.

11) Marika Koroibete: The Rebels winger just beats out Caleb Clarke as I feel he was a little more consistent. Koroibete’s attacking talents are clear for all to see, but something that often gets forgotten is his workrate both on and off the ball and his accomplished defence, which often comes to the fore at key moments.

12) Hunter Paisami: Matt To’omua’s injury could have been costly, but Hunter Paisami did a fantastic job of replacing him. He was more commonly seen at 13 for the Reds during Super Rugby AU, but looked more reliable at 12, where the defensive job allowed him to focus on using his physicality, while he also provided a great carrying option in attack.

13) Matías Orlando: The new signing for the Newcastle Falcons gets the nod here as much for his consistency at the position while Australia and New Zealand chopped and changed. That consistency at the 13 position is a key factor in Argentina’s success as he helped to keep the defence organised and stop teams breaking wider out fromthe breakdown. 

14) Bautista Delguy: He may only be 23 years old, but it feels like Delguy has been around for years. Unfortunately he wasn’t at his best in the World Cup as he was just returning from injury, but he showed us all what we were missing in this tournament. While being solid in defence, he was a bright spark with ball in hand, proving very difficult to bring down.

15) Santiago Carreras: He may have had a torrid time when moved to fly half, but Carreras looked so solid at 15. He’s known for his attacking quality, but was reliable in the more defensive performances from the Pumas and used his big boot to good effect. At just 22, he is anther player to keep your eye on over the coming years.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

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

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

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

Midfield might

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

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

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

Power pack

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

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

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

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

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

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

Testing the depth

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

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

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

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

Inefficient

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

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

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

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

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

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

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

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

A familiar issue

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

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

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

On target

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

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

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

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

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Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

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

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

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

Back to basics

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

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

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

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

Change or be changed?

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

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

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

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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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Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Argentina v South Africa – Rugby Championship 2019

This season’s shorter Rugby Championship came to an end in Salta as Argentina hosted South Africa. Last week’s draw in New Zealand, combined with the All Blacks’ loss to Australia earlier in the day, left South Africa knowing that victory would see them win the tournament for the first time since the 2009 Tri Nations. Things didn’t start well for them, as Santiago Cordero dotted down within 2 minutes, but the Springboks turned things round to lead 13-22 at the break before holding the Pumas scoreless on the way to a 13-46 victory and the Rugby Championship crown.

Argentina

On 6ᵗʰ July, the Jaguares were playing in the Super Rugby final. Just over a month later, the vast majority of those players are looking back at a Rugby Championship campaign that has finished winless. In Super Rugby they looked so dangerous but in recent weeks, they have struggled to get much going on a regular basis. I think that this comes down to one main thing: fatigue. Due to Argentina’s policy of only selecting home-based players when possible, that has limited the national team to picking the majority of their players from just 1 top flight team. This means that the majority of these players are coming off the back of a long Super Rugby season where they are having to regularly travel vast distances to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, while their replacements are in the exact same situation. Sadly, with the World Cup just around the corner, I think that the Pumas will need to keep picking strong squads in their warm-up matches to try building some momentum, which will lead to all of their top players going into the pool stages tired and likely to under-perform.

How can this be changed? Like Italy in the Pro 14, Argentina needs a second franchise in a top tier league. That way they can double the player base they can pick from, which will allow them to pick fresher players and increase the competition in the squad. The issues here? Well first of all, Super Rugby does not look to be in any position to take on a new franchise given they are in the process of cutting the Sunwolves, the Pro 14 may accommodate them but the travel would be ridiculous and the MLR is not anywhere near the level of the top-tier leagues at the moment, so an MLR franchise would more likely be a feeder for the Jaguares. If we imagine for a moment that Super Rugby did add a second Argentine franchise, we would then need to expect a decline in Argentina’s success in Super Rugby for a few seasons as a number of Jaguares players would likely move to the second franchise for more regular starts, so both teams would need to build up their depth.

It doesn’t look like there’s any easy fix, but as things stand it may be that the Pumas have reached their peak.

South Africa

Last week I discussed how South Africa put in a solid but unspectacular performance to tie against New Zealand. While they had some moments to break out in this game, it was much more of the same from the Springboks, and I think they are better for it. The centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am is shutting down some of the best attacking teams in World Rugby, the pack is looking dominant despite missing captain Siya Kolisi, and in Handré Pollard they have the perfect 10 for this style of play.

Pollard is a physical player who can hold his own in defence and attack, but more than that he is a player who will do the right thing on the ball. With players like Faf de Klerk in the team, he does not have the full weight of controlling the game on his shoulders and he is revelling in the chance to show his quality. Though he has his off days with the boot, he has a good range and finished this game with a haul of 31 points (2 tries, 3 conversions, 5 penalties). Jantjies gives a good option off the bench (with Pollard able to move to 12 if they want another playmaker) but Rassie Erasmus has to stick with the hot hand right now, and that is Handré Pollard.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Despite playing outside Argentina, Santiago Cordero has been given the start in the last 2 matches and his try will have really helped him earn a seat on the plane to Japan. I recently suggested that Marcos Kremer could make the squad as cover at lock, and being given the start in the second row this weekend suggested that Ledesma is looking to do so. For the Springboks, Makazole Mapimpi will have appreciated the extra freedom to attack in this match and finished with a try, while Trevor Nyakane put in a strong performance in the scrums and completed all 15 of his tackles in defence.

With Bongi Mbonambi putting in a strong performance, Schalk Brits will likely be left hoping Rassie Erasmus chooses to take 3 hookers to Japan. As arguably one of the best 9s in the world, Faf de Klerk‘s poor performance won’t have cost him a place in the squad, but it may have put him under pressure from the in-form Herschel Jantjies. Given the strength in depth for the Pumas in the back 3, Ramiro Moyano will be hoping a quiet tournament doesn’t see him get overlooked if Bautista Delguy is fit, while Joaquín Díaz Bonilla may be a little nervous that Benjamín Urdapilleta was preferred for this game and managed to get some counterattacks going.


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Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Rugby Championship 2019

The final round of this season’s shorter Rugby Championship began in Perth this weekend 2019’s first Bledisloe Cup match. The Wallabies took an early lead with a try from Reece Hodge and though Anton Lienert-Brown & Rieko Ioane both crossed in the next 10 minutes, Australia led 16-12 at the break, while New Zealand were left reeling after a red card for Scott Barrett just before halftime. The extra man had an impact after the break as Australia scored a further 5 tries to the All Blacks’ 2 on their way a 47-26 victory, their biggest scoreline against New Zealand. Coupled with South Africa’s win later in Argentina, Australia finished 2ⁿᵈ in the tournament and the All Blacks an unprecedented 3ʳᵈ, leaving themselves at risk of losing their World #1 ranking to Wales.

Australia

With James O’Connor returning to the starting lineup and starting at 13 for the fist time in his Wallabies career, this partnership with Samu Kerevi was the 13ᵗʰ centre pairing they have used since the end of the 2015 World Cup. If this match is anything to go by though, Michael Cheika has finally found what should be his first choice midfield combination. Christian Leali’ifano has helped bring more control to the team while he also does a good job of attacking the line. Kerevi is in the form of his life and makes the big metres to put the team on the front foot, while bringing in O’Connor at 13 gave the team a much better balance than they had with Tevita Kuridrani as he had the pace, vision and skills to play whatever situation he was in, resulting in multiple assists in this game.

This close to the World Cup, Cheika now needs to give this midfield time together, but I would be interested to see Tom Banks given another go at fullback as O’Connor’s inclusion provides another playmaker option that reduces the need for Kurtley Beale (who has had his moments but on the whole been rather quiet) at 15. With a return to New Zealand next week, it will be interesting to see the back line selected.

New Zealand

I all the years that I’ve been regularly watching rugby, I can’t remember a New Zealand team that had so many questions to answer this close to the World Cup. The 6 shirt is one that has not been sufficiently filled since Jerome Kaino left New Zealand and while Ardie Savea looked to be the best option given the depth at 7, this performance from the back row was largely disappointing – though Savea did finish with more metres made than any other player in black. Richie Mo’unga has not looked comfortable at 10 with Beauden Barrett at 15, but I can’t help feel that part of this was due to the forwards not putting the team on the front foot and the ever-changing cast at 12 and 13 (this week saw Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue start, with Ngani Laumape replacing Goodhue just 19 minutes in). Whether at wing or fullback, Ben Smith has been a star for the All Blacks for years, but he has looked far from comfortable during recent matches .

Now it may just be that the team are experimenting with different options and do in fact have all their plans settled ready for the World Cup. If so, they are playing a dangerous game as people will be looking at the draw against South Africa and this loss with confidence. The All Blacks are looking not just beatable, but ordinary. Momentum can be a great thing when you start winning, but when you’re struggling its the exact opposite. They need to put in a big performance and get a result at home next weekend.

RWC2019 Winners and Losers

Starting with a man who has already received praise in this article, James O’Connor has come in from the cold and shown that not only is he deserving of a place in the 31-man squad, but he should arguably be starting. Tolu Latu is another who has overcome off-field issues and earned another shot with the national team. Starting today and putting in a strong performance, he’s surely cemented his place in the squad and may have even beaten Folau Fainga’a to the starting spot. While there were not many great performances from the men in black, Dane Coles looked back to his best and will be pushing to cement the starting spot despite strong opposition from Codie Taylor. Atu Moli‘s selection on the bench for this match also seems to have brought an end to Karl Tu’inukuafe’s chances of going to Japan, and he will be hoping to make it onto the plane as one of the loosehead options.

Moving onto players who maybe getting nervous about their places, Ben Smith will need to hope that Steve Hansen goes on the idea that “form is temporary, class is permanent” and continue to select him. His versatility and experience will likely save him but there is the distinct possibility that he could be a high profile exclusion. His try aside, Anton Lienert-Brown again struggled to impose himself on a match from the outset. He does so well off the bench, but in a limited-numbers squad and with so many options at centre, could that limited impact as a starter prove costly? The rise of Tolu Latu has possibly brought an end to Jordan Uelese‘s chances of making the squad, having not featured since his injury-hit cameo against South Africa. Another player whose chances of making the squad look to be over is Nick Phipps, who has not been involved in the tournament at all, with all the minutes going to Will Genia and Nic White.


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Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Eyes On: Australia v Argentina – Rugby Championship 2019

Saturday saw us enter the second half of this season’s Rugby Championship with Argentina’s trip to Brisbane. Both teams were looking to get some momentum following losses in the opening round, but it was the Wallabies who took an early lead at the Suncorp Stadium through the boot of Christian Leali’ifano and a Reece Hodge try from a set move gave then a 10-3 halftime lead. The Pumas got a try back through Facundo Isa, but were unable to find another try in the final 5 minutes, falling to a 16-10 loss.

Australia

While last week they were depressingly poor, there were better signs from the Wallabies in this match. Argentina’s pack are not as strong as South Africa’s and it really showed in this match, as Australia quickly painted the picture that they were dominant at the scrums, while Izack Rodda (33m), Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (13m), Scott Sio (20m), Michael Hooper (30m) and Isi Naisarani (64m) all hit double figures for metres made, which along with 52m for Samu Kerevi did a great job of keeping the team on the front foot. Marika Koroibete also made good metres and did a great job of keeping Santiago Cordero quiet, while Leali’ifano looked at home on his return to international rugby following his comeback from leukaemia.

What will worry them, though is the sheer number of times Argentina managed to get in behind them defensively. If it wasn’t for some questionable decisions in contact, this result could have been very different. They may also be a little worried by the performance of Kurtley Beale, who was far less influential in attack compared to last week’s cameo off the bench and was lucky to get away with an awful kick that sat up nicely for the Argentina backs to counter.

Their upcoming Bledisloe Cup match will see the quality of opposition rise, if Australia aren’t careful, it could be a long 80 minutes for them.

Argentina

Last week I was disappointed with the amount of ball Argentina kicked away and wished that they would keep the ball in hand more. They certainly did that against the Wallabies, but I was still left disappointed with the style of play.

The backs are highly dangerous and they have great ball carriers in the pack, but too often they tried to offload the ball from contact when it wasn’t on, leading to many great chances ending prematurely. I can completely understand wanting to offload the ball as it stops the Australian defence from getting set and keeps them on the back foot, but so often it was leading to players getting isolated or handling errors that resulted in Australia either turning the ball over or regrouping. Even one time that they made it close to the try line, the ball was knocked on by a prop who couldn’t keep his eyes on the ball.

I think this team would really benefit from looking at the way Exeter play (Cordero could give them some tips), as Exeter get a great balance of quick, devastating attacks with offloads and also playing a more patient game, taking the tackle and setting up the breakdown, while when they reach to the line going through phases of pick-and-go drives to draw in the defence before spreading it wide to the open backs.

If Argentina can get the balance of play right in time for the World Cup, they will b extremely dangerous.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Christian Leali’ifano looked comfortably at home in the 10 jersey and has looked the best alternative to Bernard Foley (potentially even enough to compete for the starting role), which would be a great continuation of a wonderful story. Likewise, Facundo Isa managed to fit in on his return to the squad after a change in eligibility criteria allowed him to feature despite playing in France. For the Aussies, James Slipper did a great job of dominating (or at least making it look to the referee like he was dominating) his opposite number at the scrum and that, combined with his experience, is going to be pushing him towards a seat on the plane to Japan. Felipe Ezcurra was once again only given a handful of minutes at the end of the game, but earned a penalty at the breakdown with his jackaling and also seemed to up the tempo, which will certainly help his case for selection in a strong scrum half corps.

While Leali’ifano had a strong game, his replacement at 10 Matt To’omua struggled to have any impact on the game and get the back line firing in the same way. With the positions he covers (fly half and centre) being well covered by other more versatile players, he needs to put in a big performance to guarantee a spot in the squad. Joaquín Tuculet has found his 15 shirt under pressure from Emiliano Boffelli, while winger/fullback Santiago Cordero could be deemed surplus to requirements due to playing his club rugby in Europe. With such depth in the back 3, both needed big games but were kept relatively quiet by the Australians. James O’Connor may also be feeling nervous about his chances of going to Japan, as his return to the Australian team was limited to just 10 minutes at the end in a back line that was no longer firing.


As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6