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 6: New Zealand v Australia

2022 Rugby Championship Round 6: New Zealand v Australia

Probably the closest Rugby Championship in a long time reached it’s final week, and it all started aut Eden park, with New Zealand facing Australia. Last week’s controversial victory saw New Zealand enter the weekend at the top of the table courtesy of a 13-point advantage over South Africa in overall points differential, while Australia knew that a bonus point that denied the All Blacks any bonus points would see them go top of the table and hoping Argentina pulled off a shock in South Africa.

But Australia’s job became so much harder just 2 minutes in as Jed Holloway’s cleanout of Dalton Papali’i saw him take the flanker beyond the horizontal, leading to an early yellow card. And the All Blacks were immediately taking advantage of the extra man, with Beauden Barrett—starting at fullback—breaking down the left wing and chipping on, with the pressure forcing Marika Koroibete to carry the ball out over his own dead ball line for an All Blacks 5m scrum, but the Wallabies defended manfully so close to their line and eventually won the turnover penalty after 5 minutes of pressure, allowing them to clear their lines and get back to 15 men. As the game remained a tight, error-strewn affair, the All Blacks finally opened the scoring with a Richie Mo’unga penalty, while the Wallabies were dealt a blow, losing Lalakai Foketi to injury, with Jordan Petaia coming on. And things soon got worse for the men in gold as Will Jordan used his pace to find some space with an arcing run to get outside Petaia and go over for the opening try. The All Blacks were suddenly taking over the game, and a break from Rieko Ioane just a minute later led to an 8ᵗʰ penalty in 25 minutes, though despite the Wallabies being on a team warning, skipper James Slipper somehow avoided a yellow card. However the All Blacks got the drive on from the resulting lineout, and when it went to ground, Andrew Brace awarded a penalty try and sent hooker Dave Porecki to the bin. 1 points down and with a man in the bin, the Wallabies needed something, and a clever move at the front of the lineout released Pete Samu (throwing in due to Porecki’s absence) up to the All Blacks try line, and when the ball came back to the blind side, Koroibete dropped over in the corner, only to find that his foot was in touch. But the Wallabies had a penalty advantage and went for the line again, which saw Harry Wilson stopped just short and the ball held up a phase later. The australian pressure continued, but in their quest for tries not penalties they found themselves turning down kicks at goal but unable to get across the whitewash, and the kicking of Mo’unga and the Barrett brothers continued to find space deep in the backfield to push the visitors back and put the under pressure, so the teams reached the break with the All Blacks leading 17-0.

The Wallabies ay have been back to 15 as the second half kicked off, but they were under immediate pressure, and Sam Whitelock forced his way over the line after just 2 and a half minutes, and despite Angus Bell’s best efforts to dislodge the ball on the way to ground, TMO Ben Whitehouse adjudged that Whitelock had managed to keep control and the try was given. Mo’unga kicked the conversion and a penalty just minutes later to open up a 27-0 lead after just 47 minutes, and this lead was stretched further on 53 minutes as a scrum penalty allowed the All Blacks a lineout 5m from the line, and Codie Taylor was given the easy job of dropping over the line after a strong driving maul. The Walabies finally got on the scoresheet as the hour approached, Mo’unga’s kick partially charged down to Pete Samu, who advanced down the wing, and as he tried to find Folau Fainga’a on his inside, his pass was knocked towards the try line by the despairing hand of Will Jordan, allowing the Wallabies hooker to dive on the loose ball and let his momentum take him over the line. However a series of unforced handling errors from the Wallabies put them under pressure deep in their own 22, and when New Zealand won a penalty, they went to the corner and pushed over replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho for their 5ᵗʰ try of the night, while only the efforts of Koroibete covering back denied the All Blacks a 6ᵗʰ just moments later as Akira Ioane chased his own grubber kick down the wing. The result may have been beyond doubt with 10 minutes remaining, but that was no excuse for TMO Ben Whitehouse choosing to ignore what should have been a red card for Sevu Reece for a tackle on Reece Hodge that led to a head clash, and it was said All Blacks wing who forced a turnover on his own line from Australia’s next attack, with the All Blacks then countering and adding a further 3 points from the boot of Mo’unga. Australia had one last chance to grab a consolation try at the death as they kicked a penalty to the corner, and after 6 phases of pressure, Nic White’s flat miss-pass sent Petaia over beneath the posts as the defence jammed in on Pone Fa’amausili, and Reece Hodge added the conversion for a final score of 40-14.

All that was left for the All Blacks was to wait for South Africa’s match later, with the Springboks now needing a bonus point victory by a margin of at least 40 points in order to deny New Zealand the title.

Inside man

While last week was costly for the All Blacks with the loss of both Quinn Tupaea—who will be out long-term—and David Havili, it may have been a blessing in disguise. While some may have thought this would be the chance for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to get a start, Ian Foster instead chose to move fullback Jordie Barrett into the 12 shirt, with brother Beauden coming into the team at fullback.

Beauden Barrett is a fantastic player, but not as good a fly half as Mo’unga, and with Jordie Barrett the incumbent at 15 and covering long-range goal-kicking duties, Beauden’s talents were being left to just late cameos.

However as I have covered multiple times before, Jordie is (in the kindest of ways) a freak of nature, as he has the handling, passing and kicking skills to cover playmaking positions, he also has the size and power to carry hard. Havili has frequently been used in the 12 position outside Mou’unga, where he can use his own playmaking and kicking abilities, so Jordie Barrett provides a similar option at this position, but then also added an extra dynamic in the way that he could just run hard into contact himself, while we know that Beauden is more than capable of excelling at 15, allowing him to work his magic while Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett run the game.

With the Autumn Nations Cup coming up, don’t be shocked to see more of Jordie Barrett in this position as New Zealand look to climb back up the rankings.

Their own worst enemy

Australia are their own worst enemy at the moment. They will defend like dogs and hold out when conventional wisdom would suggest they should break, while in attack they can be so incredibly dangerous—especially with this week’s dynamic back row of Rob Valentini, Pete Samu and Harry Wilson—and yet they then ruin everything by giving away a million penalties a game!

OK, so a million may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s not far off. They gave away 8 penalties before they even reached the half hour mark; a top team should be hoping to only just hit double figures in an entire game. And once again they have spent 20 minutes of the match with players off the pitch in the bin, their 7ᵗʰ and 8ᵗʰ yellow cards of the tournament. When you are playing that much rugby a man down, you’re making it all-but impossible to win, while it also can’t help but be in an official’s mind going into a game that this is a team that frequently offends, meaning they will be looking for those offences.

But its so much more than that. Just take it back to a base level. Penalties stop your attacks (Holloway’s overzealous cleanout of Papali’i ended a promising early attack). It gifts your opponent possession, and leaves you having to work harder defending than you would in attack. And it gifts your opponent territory, allowing them to clear their own lines if in trouble, or kick deep into your half if you are in attack.

When you consider how many players Australia are missing at the moment through injury, the fact that they can be so competitive is impressive. However until the Wallabies can improve their discipline, they will struggle to get results consistently going their way.

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 Rugby Championship Round 5: Australia v New Zealand

2022 Rugby Championship Round 5: Australia v New Zealand

Round 5 of the 2022 Rugby Championship kicked off in slightly unusual circumstances on a Thursday in Melbourne with Australia facing off against New Zealand for the first Bledisloe Cup match of the year. The All Blacks came in topping the table after a big victory over Argentina, and took advantage of the Wallabies’ failure to win the kickoff to establish early dominance in the 22, resulting in a driving maul pushing Samisoni Taukei’aho over for the opening try after 3 minutes. Richie Mo’unga, getting a run of games in the starting lineup, kicked the touchline conversion and added a penalty for a breakdown infringement after 10 minutes as ill discipline and handling errors from Australia gifted the All Blacks possession. Australia finally earned some possession and soon kicked a penalty of their own through Bernard Foley, who was appearing for the first time in 3 years, while their next possession in the All Blacks 22 saw them create an overlap to send Andrew Kellaway over in the corner, only for the efforts of Rieko Ioane and Mo’unga to hold the ball up. It was just a temporary delay,  though, as Rob Valentini crashed over from short range just minutes later while Dalton Papali’i—on as a replacement for Sam Cane who had suffered a head injury—was sent to the bin for an offence in the build-up. The try and man advantage appeared to spur on the Wallabies, however a series of 15 phases deep in New Zealand territory was ended by a timely jackal from Quinn Tupaea—on early after David Havili suffered a head clash in a friendly fire incident—while the Wallabies also had to bring on Darcy Swain for Rob Leota, who had been attempting to run off an early knock. And the All Blacks immediately made Australia pay for the missed opportunity, with Caleb Clarke breaking from his own 22 into the Australian red one and forcing a cynical penalty from Tom Wright, who was sent to the bin, while Swain joined him just seconds after his introduction for a dangerous cleanout on Tupaea (who left the field with a knee injury), while Papali’i returned to the field to change a 15v14 into a 13v15 situation with 5 minutes left of the first half, which the All Blacks took immediate advantage of to drive Taukei’aho over, only for Jake Gordon to force the ball loose as the hooker tried to ground it, and the home team held on to half time with the scores level at 10-10.

The Wallabies replaced injured captain James Slipper at half time with Scott Sio coming on, but the All Blacks were ahead before the prop had a chance to get involved in the game, with a clever kick downfield and determined chase taking advantage of the extra space in the Australian backfield, while Taukei’aho was not to be denied this time when he got the ball close to the line, while a poor decision to kick from Hoskins Sotutu with plenty of men in support was the only thing that denied the All Blacks scoring on a break from their own 22 with their very next possession. A breakdown penalty won by Lalakai Foketi allowed Foley to cut the lead to 4 as the Wallabies got back to 15 men, but that didn’t last long as Jake Gordon was soon given a yellow card for collapsing a maul. WIth a man advantage and a back line featuring Mo’unga and 2 Barretts,  maul was stopped immediately, Mo’unga found a gap outside Foley and held onto the ball through a double tackle as he went to ground to score next to the posts. Just minutes later, Will Jordan beat everyone to a Beauden Barrett chip over the defensive line and swerved around the despairing tackles of the remaining defenders to score under the posts, Mo’unga’s conversion stretching the lead to 13-31. The All Blacks were looking comfortable, until Foley got his arms through a tackle and offloaded to send Kellaway over for a try as they prepared to return to 15 men, which flipped the momentum in favour of the hosts, who struck again with 13 minutes remaining as Foley’ wide pass beat the New Zealand defence and send Kellaway over again, the conversion from Foley bringing the deficit down to just 4 points. Mo’unga kicked a penalty to fight back against the flood of points, but the Wallabies had their tails up, and Pete Samu combined with Marika Koroibete to put the back row over in the corner, while Foley’s conversion drew the scores level with 6 minutes remaining. Rob Valentini won a penalty that Nic White kicked from just inside the All Black half for the unlikeliest of late leads, and when their defence stopped the All Blacks maul 5m from the line and won a penalty with just over a minute remaining, it looked like a momentous comeback victory was on the cards. However referee Mathieu Raynal decided that he had not played a big enough part in the match to this point, and having allowed time wasting from both teams throughout, chose this moment to decide that enough was enough and gave a New Zealand 5m scrum after adjudging that Foley took too long to take his kick to touch, and having been gifted one last chance, Will Jordan sent Jordie Barrett over in the corner for a controversial 37-39 victory.

Dropping like flies

Just one year out from the World Cup, Dave Rennie must be getting very nervous at the number of injuries his squad is picking up. Through both this tournament and the preceding Test series against England, they have found themselves losing a couple of players each game, and rarely just with a knock that would see them back for the next match.

While it does have some benefits by allowing Dave Rennie a chance to test some of his fringe players against strong opposition—just look at Foley’s first cap since the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Pone Fa’aumausili making his debut—the constant chopping and changing of personnel is stopping the team from getting any consistency in selection and creation of units. And as good as all these players are, they need to be playing together regularly to build up the chemistry and trust between each other—you just have to look at the former New Zealand back row of Kaino, McCaw and Read or centre pair of Nonu and Smith to see just how chemistry can take players from very good to great.

But what is causing so many injuries? Are they working to hard in training, leaving muscles at risk? Or are they just going through a string of really bad luck, as you sa with injuries to players like Banks and Perese? Whatever the case, with limited matches remaining between now and the Rugby World Cup, Dave Rennie needs to hope the injuries end soon so that his ideal 23 can get used to working together. In a pool that contains Fiji, Wales and a Georgian team that should never be written off, that chemistry and familiarity could be the difference between topping the pool and an early exit.

Scraping through

While it may be a win for the All Blacks, it’s a very odd one to look back on. While they had moments of genuine quality, many of these came when they were playing with a numerical advantage, while the playmaking trio of Mo’unga and the Barretts was enforced through injury rather than a brilliant tactical decision from Foster. But more telling was just how many breaks or half-breaks came to disappointing ends due to either handling errors or wrong decisions, most notably when Hoskins Sotutu chose to kick with teammates supporting on either side.

But equally worrying is just how easy Australia found it to hit back after periods of All Black dominance. We’re not used to seeing New Zealand take their boot off their opponent’s neck once they get on top, and you would usually expect that a couple of quick tries to build up a 13-31 lead just after the hour would be a spot from which New Zealand would go on to win comfortably rather that the prompt for a fightback from an Australian lineup who are not used to playing together. If recent matches are anything to go by, New Zealand will be better in round 6 after a match of sizing up their opponents. But if they do win he final fixture, then a 3-game winning streak will be hiding plenty of deficiencies still very present within this team.

2022 Rugby Championship Round 4: Australia v South Africa

2022 Rugby Championship Round 4: Australia v South Africa

Week 4 of the Rugby Championship continued with the first ever match at the new Allianz Stadium in Sydney as Australia hosted South Africa. The World Champions, coming in on a shock 2-game losing streak, made a number of changes to their squad for this match and were immediately on the front foot, putting heavy pressure on in defence and looking dangerous in attack. And so it was no surprise to see the Springboks open the scoring, after phases of pressure in the 22 from the forwards drew the defence in tight, leaving space for Eben Etzebeth to spin in contact and offload to Damian de Allende to go over beneath the posts, while Matt Philip was also sent to the bin for not retreating 10m at a penalty in the build-up. The South African dominance continued as the half went on, but wet conditions led to a series of handling errors that brought their chances to an end, while Australia were forced into a reshuffle of their back line as Hunter Paisami went off just before the half hour with a head injury, Andrew Kellaway coming on at 13 while Len Ikitau moved to 12. The Wallabies grew into the game though and Noah Lolesio put them on the scoreboard with 8 minutes left of the half with his first kick at goal. However the Springboks got the last laugh before the break as Canan Moodie outjumped Marika Koroibete to beat him to Jaden Hendrikse’s box kick before running in uncontested to score on his Test debut and give the Springboks a 3-12 lead at the break.

The second half began much like the first, with incredible pressure from the Springboks leading to an early try as Willie le Roux sent Franco Mostert over in the corner, while the Wallabies were dealt a blow as replacement Taniela Tupou suffered an injury when warming up and Noah Lolesio left the pitch, forcing another reshuffle that saw replacement scrum half Jake Gordon come on to play on the wing. The Wallabies put together a patch of dominance which ended as Allan Ala’alatoa was penalised for a clean-out direct to the head of Damian de Allende, and the South Africans put the pressure straight back on, winning a series of penalties that saw de Allende held up over the line, but with 10 minutes remaining, the ball was spread wide for Willie le Roux to send Makazole Mapimpi in the corner for a try, with the wing also being sent to the bin after his reaction sparked a coming together between both teams. With a man advantage, Australia went over for a consolation try with just minutes left, while le Roux was sent to the bin for a deliberate knock-on in the build-up, but there was no further time for the Wallabies to fight back and the game ended in an 8-24 victory for the World Champions.

The right trio?

Have Australia got the right trio in the back row? They look like they had found a reliable trio in Rob Leota, Michael Hooper and Rob Valentini, but with Hooper pulling out, and the decision to bring in Jed Holloway in place of Leota, that balance is having to be found all over again.

McReight is certainly doing his best to replace Hooper, but those are big boots to fill for a player so inexperienced at this level, and while Holloway is surely doing plenty of work that goes unseen, he des not appear to be getting as involved as Leota used to.

For me, McReight needs to stay in as a specialist 7, but I would argue that Holloway be replaced, either by Leota or my preferred choice Pete Samu: Capable of playing across the back row, he brings power, dynamism and is also good for a couple of turnovers per game. Adding him gives the Wallabies another genuine weapon in attack, while the Wallabies could also draw up a couple of plays off scrums that see Samu and Valentini swap positions.

Dominant

After 2 losses in a row, South Africa needed a reaction. Well the certainly got one in this match. Right from the kickoff, this looked like a team that were looking to ensure that they not only won, but dominated their opposition.

Siya Kolisi played like a man possessed, absolutely dominating the breakdown, while usual replacements Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff were running hard with ball in hand and doing everything they could to disrupt the Australian breakdown. Jasper Wiese carried hard and in my view should now be the first choice number 8 , likewise Hendrikse at 9 who remains a handful and kicks so effectively. De Allende varied his play at 12—though I would argue he still put in too many questionable kicks—while Willie le Roux did his usual job of calming things down and keeping things in order in the back line. And lets also take a moment to mention Canan Moodie, who made his debut and arguably outplayed one of Australia’s most consistently dangerous players in Marika Koroibete!

They put the pressure on the Wallabies and never really let off, never giving them a chance to properly get their own attacking play going , while still also using the kicking game to keep them in their own half. Was it a perfect performance? No, but it’s a timely reminder that playing with desire, aggression and intensity—as long as it’s correctly channeled—is important if you want to win in Test rugby.

feat rugby the rugby championship banner

2022 Rugby Championship Round 4: New Zealand v Argentina

2022 Rugby Championship Round 4: New Zealand v Argentina

The 2022 Rugby Championship entered the second half of its competition with the second of Argentina’s matches in New Zealand. The Pumas came into the match topping the table after their first ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, but an early handling error from Tomás Lavanini gave the All Blacks immediate possession in the Pumas 22, and a minute of pressure earned them a penalty, which RIchie Mo’unga calmly slotted for an early lead. In wet conditions, the Pumas continued to make errors that gifted New Zealand possession and territory, and when Rieko Ioane recovered a chip into the Pumas 22, the All Blacks quick ball kept them on the front foot and eventually saw Ethan de Groot crash over for the opening try. The All Blacks extended their lead as the first quarter came to an end, Mo’unga sending a grubber in behind the Pumas defence—and taking a big hit from Marcos Kremer in the process—which Will Jordan won the race to, and with the Pumas defence retreating, the ball was spread wide on the next phase to send Caleb Clarke over in the corner, Mo’unga converting for a 17-0 lead. This finally sparked a response from Argentina, whose first attack of real note won a penalty, but they chose to kick to the corner and were soon undone by another handline error as they tried to spread the ball wide. Emiliano Boffelli finally put Argentina on the scoreboard with a penalty after 32 minutes, however a lack of communication recovering the restart led to them giving away a penalty in their own 22, and after the All Blacks’ initial attempt was stopped, Samisoni Taukei’aho crossed for the try—written off for a knock-on in the build-up by Tyrel Lomax—while Lavanini was sent to the bin for not being back 10m at the penalty. And the All Blacks took immediate advantage of the extra man, choosing to take a scrum and getting the push on, before giving to the backs to send Rieko Ioane over beneath the post, Mo’unga kicking the conversion for a 24-3 halftime lead.

The Pumas made a change at half time, with Benjamín Urdapilleta replacing Santiago Carreras—who had taken a knock to the thigh courtesy of an unpenalised late hit from Sam Cane—and he immediately had the Pumas on the attack, until a strip from Sam Whitelock on Thomas Gallo saw the All Blacks win the ball back and kick downfield, with a great chase putting the Pumas under heavy pressure, resulting in possession once again deep in the Argentina half and, soon after, another penalty for Mo’unga. As both teams went to their benches, George Bower found himself turned over by Matera n the Pumas try line, and this sparked a period of attacking intensity from the Pumas which saw Fletcher Newell binned for collapsing a driving maul and as the penalties continued to come their way, Lavanini’s stretch for the line saw the ball dislodged by Mo’unga, while another handling error ended their next attack in the 22. Winning a penalty advantage off the resulting scrum, the All Blacks chose to try and play with ball in hand, and Will Jordan released Rieko Ioane to break away, and a few phases of pressure saw Sam Cane put through to draw the last defender and feed Jordie Barrett for the try. That try killed off any remaining hopes of an Argentina comeback, and New Zealand’s next foray into Pumas territory also saw them score, Ardie Savea dotting down with 12 minutes left to make it 2 tries scored while Newell was in the bin, while Brodie Retallick marked his return from injury with a try with 6 minutes remaining and Beauden Barrett crossed after the final hooter, with brother Jordie converting for a 50-3 victory that will likely see many with short memories say that Ian Foster is the man to lead the All Blacks again.

In behind

Last week I talked about how the All Blacks just mindlessly ran into the heart of the Pumas defence phase after phase. Well it looks like Ian Foster has done his homework and created a gameplan to attack the Pumas (a week late), as they have done much better this week. And it all comes down to one thing: kicks in behind the defence.

The Argentina defence is made up of a group of absolute units getting in your face and hitting you hard, but once you get in behind them, they are vulnerable as they are forced to chase back, and often start giving away high numbers of penalties. This week, the All Blacks were finding a way to get in behind the defensive line, by having Richie Mo’unga and David Havili play clever shallow kicks in behind the front line.

It was a clear planned tactic as Will Jordan was always aware and ready to chase for it, while the kicks all notably came when playing to the All Blacks’ right wing, away from aerial master Emiliano Boffelli. Worst case scenario, these chips and grubbers were forcing the Pumas to have the ball deep in their own half, but what was often happening in the game was that Jordan was beating the defence on the turn, and in that moment the All Blacks attack would press their advantage to score a few phases later.

Now if only Ian Foster can start figuring out how to beat a team in 1 week rather than 2 or 3, the All Blacks may be able to put together a run of wins.

Kicking themselves

While New Zealand got their tactics right this week, the Pumas didn’t. Much like in the first round against Australia, Argentina focused too much on attacking with the ball in hand, which worked against them as a combination of wet conditions and a solid All Blacks defence saw them continually making handling errors that killed off their match.

What they should have been doing was playing the kicking game that they did in round 2, putting the ball up and letting players like Carreras, Boffelli, Cordero and Mallia put pressure on the All Blacks in the air. Granted the All Blacks are better set to deal with this than the Wallabies (courtesy of both Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan being experienced fullbacks), but with conditions making the ball slippery, it would have still been a much more effective tactic, while also forcing the All Blacks to play from deep.

It’s noticeable that the high ball game did feature a little more after the break, and it did cause some problems for the All Blacks, but the game was already all-but over as a competition by that point and needed a more attacking gameplan from the Pumas, which then worked into New Zealand hands as the handling errors continued.

2022 Rugby Championship Round 3: New Zealand v Argentina

2022 Rugby Championship Round 3: New Zealand v Argentina

With the first match in Adelaide out of the way, eyes turned to Canterbury, where the All Blacks were hosting Argentina. New Zealand chose to stick with the same starting XV (and all-but one of the bench) as their last match for the first time in forever, but after an early missed penalty from Richie Mo’unga, Emiliano Boffelli had more success with his own first attempt. Despite good field position, Mo’unga kicked the next penalty to the corner, but it proved to be the right decision as the All Blacks maul ushered Samisoni Taukei’aho over for the opening try and a 5-3 lead. The Pumas struck back though with a series of phases of quick ball drawing the New Zealand defence offside, allowing Boffelli to kick them back into the lead. As the half hour mark approached, the Kiwis went through a series of phases to eventually win a penalty in the Argentina 22, which Mo’unga kicked, and when Julián Montoya overthrew a lineout on halfway, the All Blacks recovered the loose ball and spread it wide to send Caleb Clarke over in the corner, Mo’unga’s conversion stretching the lead to 9 points. Montoya was looking to make immediate amends with a jackal on Will Jordan, which allowed Boffelli to kick a penalty from the halfway line, while an early tackle from Tyrel Lomax allowed Boffelli to land a 4ᵗʰ penalty with the final kick of the half, bringing the score to 15-12.

The All Blacks had the first chance of points after the break as Jordie Barrett’s penalty attempts from inside his own half drifted wide, but the hosts attacked well off the resulting 22 drop-out and eventually earned a much more kickable penalty, which Mo’unga duly slotted. But the Pumas hit back immediately, with Boffelli pressuring Scott Barrett at the restart and forcing a fumble straight into the hands of Juan Martín González, who reacted quicker than everyone to go over in the corner, with Boffelli’s conversion from the touchline putting the Pumas ahead. A huge scrum from the All Blacks allowed them to kick a penalty to the corner, but the chance was wasted as they were pinged for obstruction as they tried to set the maul. Another breakdown penalty from Montoya allowed Boffelli to extend the lead, while another penalty to touch for New Zealand came to nothing on the hour mark as Codie Taylor overthrew everyone and allowed the Pumas to recover and clear their lines. Sam Cane was probably lucky to just concede a penalty a few minutes later for a tackle off the ball on Pablo Matera, but Boffelli’s kick stretched the lead to 7 points. The All Blacks started looking dangerous as they made ground through a series of phases, but Matías Orlando brought that to an end with a critical turnover with just 11 minutes remaining. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, a dominant maul from Argentina was collapsed on halfway to earn Shannon Frizell a yellow card, but their decision to kick for territory rather than give Boffelli the shot at goal backfired as the support men failed to keep their feet at the breakdown when the ball went to the backs. With just a minute remaining, The All Blacks had one final chance with a penalty in the Pumas 22 and ent to the corner, but Codie Taylor’s throw to Sam Whitelock was angled too far towards his own team, and the Pumas secured the ball at their scrum and kicked the ball out for a deserved 18-25 victory, their first win over the All Blacks in New Zealand.

The end?

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact… same f*cking thing… over and over again expecting… shit to change… That. Is. Crazy.”

—Vaas, Far Cry 3

Ian Foster was given the backing of New Zealand Rugby following the win over South Africa, which always felt premature to me giving his recent record. Do you think they are regretting it now as Foster has led them to another unwanted first?

The cliché is that you have to earn the right to go wide, and while that is somewhat true, it doesn’t mean that you have to do so by sending everyone through the tight channels for phase after phase, you can also do so by clever running lines committing defenders and holding them so that they can’t drift, creating the natural space out wide. The All Blacks used to be the best at this.

Today? There were maybe a couple of times they did this, most notably Clarke’s try when they countered the overthrown lineout and used Rieko Ioane’s arcing run to create the space to put Jordie Barrett through the line. The rest of the time, they just pounded the Argentine defence in the narrow positions. And the Pumas welcomed it, completing all but a handful of their tackles (96% tackle completion from 205 tackles). That Pumas pack will happily tackle you all day long, and they have such incredible player in there like Kremer, Montoya and Matera who just need the smallest fraction of a second to get over the ball and win the turnover. So by continually going down these channels without any real manipulation of the defensive line’s shape and expecting a different result, you are just playing into their hands.

Ian Foster and company may develop a plan to win next week, but where was that planning inthe 2 weeks that they just had to prepare for this match? And as the World Cup looms closer, new assistant Joe Schmidt must start looking like a much more attractive option than the man currently running the All Blacks legacy into the ground.

Kick-off kings

It’s a hallmark of Michael Cheika sides: the whole team starting 10m back at kickoffs and beginning their run-up during the kicking motion. It’s an incredibly smart tactic that I’ve always wondered why more teams don’t adapt, but with the Pumas, it now makes the restart a weapon.

So what makes this such a good tactic? Well for starters, it reduces the chances of players being in front of the kicker at the restart as they are coming from deeper, but at the same time it also allows the kicking team to arrive with more momentum, which makes it harder for the receiving team to create a dominant first contact.

But with this Pumas team, it is taken to another level. Santiago Carreras can get so much hang on his kicks that it allows the chasers to actually reach the catchers at the same time as the ball even on deeper kicks, while they then have Boffelli—one of the best in the world at getting in the air for the high ball—chasing the kick, not with the intention of making the first tackle, but instead looking to challenge for the ball. And that extra few metres of a run-up gives him the momentum to get up high enough to challenge against a player who is being lifted. If he can get up and swat the ball back, then the Pumas win possession well inside the opposition half, and if he can only put some pressure on, that may be enough to force a fumble, and then the loose ball is anyone’s game, leading to the possibility of the Pumas still winning the ball back (as happened for Juan Martín González’s try), the receiving team winning the ball but being under heavy pressure and potentially being able to be turned over if players don’t react fast enough, or the ball being knocked on by the catcher as they fumble, giving the Pumas a scrum in a dangerous area.

Many teams already seem to struggle consistently securing the ball and exiting correctly off a restart after they score. Against Michael Cheika’s Argentina, this will just be an even greater challenge.

2022 Rugby Championship Round 3: Australia v South Africa

2022 Rugby Championship Round 3: Australia v South Africa

After a week off, the Rugby Championship was back, beginning with South Africa’s trip to Adelaide to face Australia. 2 weeks ago, the Springboks had a poor start that let the All Blacks go 15 points up, and it was another poor stat here as the Wallabies recovered their own kickoff and kept the visitors on the back foot with a series of phases of quick ball before sending Fraser McReight over from close range, with Noah Lolesio—returning to the 10 shirt with Quade Cooper injured—adding the conversion and an early penalty for a 10-0 lead after just 7 minutes. The Springboks were struggling to get a grip on the game early on and their first chance of points after 14 minutes saw Handré Pollard’s penalty pull to the left. Just minutes later though they looked in for a try as Ox Nché was first to Lukhanyo Am’s chip and offloaded back to the centre, who fed Eben Etzebeth, but the lock was stopped just short of the line by Reece Hodge and McReight was in to steal the ball before a green shirt arrived. The Springboks were growing into the game; Pollard missed his second kick at goal but it was third time lucky to put them on the board after 23 minutes. The next South African penalty was kicked to the corner, and through Joseph Dweba’s lineout was stolen, Etzebeth was alert to the slap back and only just beaten to the loose ball in-goal by Nic White, but after the resulting scrum resulted in a South African penalty, Nché was held up over the line, but Tom Wright was sent to the bn for not retreating at the penalty. With the man advantage in the back line, the Boks chose to wrap up the forwards in another scrum, which backfired as Frans Malherbe was pinged for angling in. The Boks were soon back deep in the Wallabies 22 with another lineout in the corner, but after the Australian pack held strong, the ball was spread to Makazole Mapimpi on the left wing, only for Marika Koribete—who had been playing all game as if the Springboks had insulted him and his family—to cover across from the far side and dislodge the ball as the Sharks wing dived for the line, though many will question if there were any arms used in the challenge. This led to one of the craziest moments I’ve seen on a rugby pitch in a long time. As Nic White brought the ball out from the scrum, Faf de Klerk attempted to slap his arm to dislodge the ball, but instead caught his opposite number across the jaw. White of course did everything he could to draw attention to it, and after reviewing with the TMO, referee Paul Williams sent de Klerk to the bin, and the Wallabies saw out the finally seconds of the half to go in at the break with a 10-3 lead.

The second half heralded the arrival of Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff from the bench, but with the man advantage it was Australia who struck first, with Tom Wright making ground down the right wing and the ball then coming out to Koroibete, who sidestepped Pollard to reach the line and stretch the lead to 15-3. De Klerk soon returned to the pitch, but it made little difference, and the Wallabies increased their lead with a lovely move off a ruck that released Noah Lolesio, who drew the covering Pollard and played in McReight for his second try of the game, with the conversion taking the lead to 19, which soon became 22 as Elton Jantjies was pinged for not rolling. With the game already lost, Vincent Koch was put through a gap and fed Kwagga Smith for a try that took away Australia’s bonus point, while an attack in the final minute saw Rob Valentini sent to the bin for a cynical hand in the ruck, with Kwagga Smith scoring again from the resulting penalty for a final score of 25-17.

The replacement

Michael Hooper is a fantastic player. It’s very rare that his performance would rank outside the top 3 for his team, while even in the worst Wallabies performances, he often comes away with his reputation unharmed, if not advanced. So to lose such a player, let alone a leader, on the eve of the tournament was always going to hurt.

Luckily for the Wallabies, they have a couple of other wonderful 7s to follow in the footsteps of Hooper, Pocock and Smith; and the loss of Hooper granted an opportunity to Fraser McReight. And while he showed flashes of quality in the opening matches against the Pumas, it was clear that this was a player adjusting to the level of Test rugby. Today however was truly his breakout performance.

His 2 tries highlighted how, much like Hooper, he is an energetic and dynamic player in the loose, while he frequently found himself in the right place at the right time to cause trouble, and played a critical role in stopping one of South Africa’s best chances with a turnover just short of his own try line after the Boks got in behind the defensive line.

If Hooper is going to be out long-term, McReight’s performances and growth will be a good by-product of this, and will give the Wallabies even greater depth if their captain returns.

Plan B?

We all know what South Africa’s Plan A is: dominate the set piece, dominate in the air to win territory, and defend hard. That’s all well and good, but if a tam can gain parity in the set piece and nullify the kicking game, then suddenly the South African gameplan has an issue as it is not designed to overcome a considerable deficit.

In this match, as with the loss to New Zealand 2 weeks ago, Dweba’s inconsistencies at the lineout took away their set piece dominance in crucial moments—to have your lineout stolen 5m from the opposition line is criminal—while Australia set the blockers so much better than in their loss to Argentina, which allowed them to be much more secure in the kicking game.

It’s time for South Africa to start looking at other options. While being able to hold back Marx for the second half is a great option when Bongi Mbonambi is there to start, Dweba is not as reliable and it is stopping the Springboks from getting that dominance they are used to in the opening half hour. Meanwhile, you have the best 13 in the world in Lukhanyo Am, and a dangerous crash ball runner in Damian de Allende unable to consistently get into the game in attack as the halves kick most of the ball away.

When these teams meet again in a week’s time, South Africa need to show that they have more than just a Plan A, and I would argue that they start the game with a focus on keeping the ball in hand and challenging the Australian defence over a number of phases.

2022 Rugby Championship Round 2: Argentina v Australia

2022 Rugby Championship Round 2: Argentina v Australia

Round 2’s repeat of last week’s matches continued in San Juan with Argentina hosting Australia. An ill-disciplined second half from the Pumas had cost them last week, but they started quickest this week, getting the ball wide, and when Tom Wright fumbled Juan Imhoff’s grubber under pressure, the Pumas wing collected the ball and ran in for the opening try after just 61 seconds, Emiliano Boffelli adding the extras. The great start continued as heavy pressure in defence forced a scrum, from which Santiago Carreras kicked a 50/22 up to the Wallabies 5m line, and after a series of phases, Thomas Gallo fought his way over for a try under the posts, leaving a simple conversion for Boffelli to make it 14-0 in 7 minutes before the Wallabies—who had been forced into a number of changes from last week due to injuries—could even fire a shot. A timely jackal from Fraser McReight brought the next Pumas attack to an end and allowed the Wallabies to kick to the corner, and after Rob Valentini was sent charging into the defence off the top of the lineout, James Slipper was following up and carried over for a crucial try, converted by James O’Connor. Slipper and Valentini were combining again to put the Wallabies on the front foot again just minutes later, and after a series of phases in the 22, the Wallabies earned a penalty for offsides that allowed O’Connor to cut the lead to 4 points. The Aussies had all he momentum and were finding gaps too often, and when Jordan Petaia was put through a gap in the 22 by O’Connor he drew the last man and fed the ball back to O’Connor for what appeared to be a try, until Karl Dickson found an offence from James Slipper at the breakdown just before. That decision proved crucial, as Carreras kicked for touch, and when Taniela Tupou offended at that lineout, they kicked into the Wallabies 22 and worked a gap for Jerónimo de la Fuente to scythe through and score, though it came at the expense of a leg injury for the Pumas centre. The Wallabies were straight back on the attack through Len Ikitau and Lalakai Foketi and made it right up to the try-line, only for Nic White to be adjudged as having not come through the game to clean out. The next try came out of nowhere on the half hour, as the Wallabies failed to deal with a simple kick forward under minimal pressure—White choosing to play a blocking role when Petaia held off expecting him to take the catch—which led to the ball bouncing and O’Connor, who was ruching across to cover, juggling the ball straight into the hands of Juan Martín González, who gratefully took the ball 40m unchallenged to score for the 2ⁿᵈ consecutive week. And with 5 minutes left of the half, Boffelli was the next to take advantage of Australian struggles under the high ball, as he broke away and just managed to ride Marika Koroibete’s tackle to ground the ball, though officials were clearly not watching the replays as they were unable to see the compelling evidence that the ball had been grounded. As an inept performance from karl Dickson and his officials continued, Marcos Kremer was wrongly adjudged to have not used his arms in a low tackle a minute before the break, and the Wallabies kicked down into the corner, only to be turned over at the lineout, ending the half with the score at 26-10.

It was the Wallabies who created the first chance after the break, with Valetini again being released off the back of a lineout, and though he was stopped just short of the line, he offloaded to Petaia, whose momentum carried him through a tackle by Gonzalo Bertranou, who managed to strip the ball before it could be grounded. The second half began settling into a rhythm of the Pumas defence holding out (sometimes under heavy pressure close to their line) and eventually clearing their lines, but one good kick chase caught Tom Wright in 2 minds and he was snagged and caught holding on to the ball by Imhoff, allowing Boffelli to kick the first points of the half. As the clock ticked past the hour, a monster maul by the Pumas brought them into the 22, and as they went through the phases, Gallo eventually forced himself over for his second try, though he appeared to be stopped short and then go again. The Wallabies were 26 points down with 15 minutes left, but quickly hit back through a try from Len Ikitau. to give them a little hope, however this hope was all-but ended just moments later as Tate McDermott’s 50/22 took them deep into the Pumas redzone, only for them to give away a penalty at the breakdown. And when Argentina turned the ball over with just minutes left, Boffelli chased down Carreras’ grubber to go over, and with the clock in the red, replacement halves Tomás Cubelli and Tomás Albornoz combined off a scrum for one last try, which Boffelli converted for a 48-17 victory that leaves the Pumas top of the table after 2 rounds.

Kicking on

Last week I suggested that the Pumas had got their tactics wrong by not getting their back 3 involved in attack. While it seems that Michael Cheika agreed as it was the complete opposite this week.

In attack, the big carriers in the pack and centres were still involved, but there was a lot more quick spreading of the ball to the wings, who were certainly enjoying their chance to run at the opposition.

But more important was the kicking. This week, they were frequently kicking to compete, with Bertranou and Carreras putting up high balls that were just the right length for their back 3 to attack. Boffelli especially was having success outjumping his man. But even the slightly longer kicks were causing the Wallabies problems, as they started having issues getting organised in time to make the catch.

This is clearly a team building and improving as Michael Cheika gets more time with them. If they can continue building like this, they will be a real threat come the World Cup once again.

Problem position?

While it must be noted that Australia are currently playing with a number of players out injured, they are notably struggling at fullback. While there had been talk of Jordan Petaia learning the position, Test rugby came around before he had time to sufficiently do so, so with him being used on the wing, it is Tom Wright who has been pulling on the 15 shirt of late. And it is costing the Wallabies.

Though he may have played the position previously in rugby league, the 13-man code uses its fullbacks differently, and it is notable how often he looked like a winger covering the position, being much more willing to try running kicks back than to get into a territory game, while also not looking fully comfortable covering Argentina’s much more varied kicking game in this match.

The odd thing is that Reece Hodge, who has plenty of experience at 15, was available on the bench. While I imagine that Hodge is being held back due to his versatility covering so many positions off the bench, and Petaia, Koroibete and Wright all above Hodge in the pecking order should everyone be played in their ideal positions, rugby is not about simply getting your best 15 players on the pitch, but getting the players who fit the position, and I think that if they want success against South Africa and New Zealand in their remaining matches, they need to play someone used to the position.