Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: England v South Africa

After 5 weeks of action, the Autumn Nations Series reached its finale with England hosting South Africa. The World Champions’ selection was hampered a little by the absence of any Irish, English or French-based players, due to the Test being played outside World Rugby’s Test window, and yet their pack’s dominance in the early scrums gave Faf de Klerk an early shot at the posts, but his radar was slightly off, while England captain Owen Farrell missed an even easier opener of his own just minutes later. Farrell finally opened the scoring after 12 minutes after Frans Malherbe was penalised at a scrum. A strong carry in the 22 from Evan Roos allowed de Klerk to pull things level after Alex Coles was pinged for a high tackle, while Farrell again missed from in front of the posts just minutes later. South Africa tried to make the hosts pay for Farrell’s misses with a clever move at the front of a 5m lineout, but the defence jus managed to hold Siya Kolisi up over the line. As the game reached the half hour mark, Damian Willemse kicked a drop goal to give the visitors the lead, and then just minutes later, he countered a long kick and set Willie le Roux away down the right wing to draw the defence and release Kurt-Lee Arendse, who stepped marcus Smith for the opening try. Willemse’s next touch saw him again get a break going as he arced around Maro Itoje and offloaded inside to release Arendse, but the wing’s grubber to the corner was blocked by Freddie Steward as England looked vulnerable. England’s pack were struggling to deal with their opponents in the set piece, and as the half came to an end, de Klerk added another 3 points off the tee for a 3-14 lead at the break.

England rung the changes at the break, with the entire front row being replaced and Jack Nowell on for Tommy Freeman, but a timely counterruck from the Springboks turned the ball over on the edge of the 22 to allow Willemse another simple drop goal. A great take in the air by Freddie Steward put England on the front foot and allowed a further half-break from Smith that earned a penalty, which Farrell landed, but a moment of stupidity from Jonny Hill gave South Africa a penalty that was kicked to the corner, and Tom Curry soon found himself going to the bin for illegally slowing down the ball in the following phases, and it only took a couple of phases with the man advantage before Eben Etzebeth scored the second try of the game, though he appeared to be on the floor when he played the ball. As the hour approached, the Boks won another scrum penalty against the 7-man English pack, and de Klerk bisected the posts from halfway to stretch the lead to 21 points. England were dealt a lifeline just after, though, as Thomas du Toit was sent off just minutes after coming on for a dangerous high challenge, while Jacques Nienaber inexplicably chose the same moment to remove Willie le Roux. Wth the man advantage, England were starting to find some space, but it was not until Ben Youngs took a quick-tap penalty in the South African 22 that they really made use of this, as they used the quick ball to send Henry Slade over for the try, while the Boks also lost de Klerk and Kolisi to injury for the remaining minutes. But the visitors defence held firm and if anything put the hosts under more pressure, to secure a 13-27 victory.

Eddie’s England

How can you tell that a Test-level coach doesn’t have a clue? Watch their team try to take on South Africa at their own game. Despite plenty of prior matches that show the way to trouble South Africa is to play expansive rugby, and that by trying to take them on up front and through the kicking game.

Selecting Mako Vunipola to take on Frans Malherbe—who treated him as a plaything in the RWC2019 final—always felt like a strange decision and, like in 2019 was proved to be completely wrong as he was dominated at the scrum, while Tommy Freeman was not so much thrown in at the deep end, more thrown into shark-infested water with bloody meat attached to him. And to top it all off, keeping Owen Farrell as kicker when he was struggling with an injury that affected his kicking was idiocy given Marcus Smith was on the pitch. Were it not for Thomas du Toit’s moronic red card, England would have had no way back in this match, and even then, the last 10 minutes were more panicked play than structured attack.

And if you want a final indictment of Eddie Jones and his coaching, you just have to look at the build-up to Etzebeth’s try. England dealt with the restart and eventually won a penalty against Faf de Klerk, only for Jonny Hill to manhandle the scrumhalf after the whistle, resulting in the penalty being reversed. With England under pressure, Curry was forced to illegally intervene and was righty carded as the team were already on a warning for repeated infringements. Then when South Africa were stopped on the England try line, the players around the ruck were too busy appealing to the referee to deal with the ball spurting out of the ruck and Etzebeth recovering and stretching for the line.

Discipline starts with the coach. If they can’t get that right, and then pick completely the wrong tactics, then it’s time for them to move on. The sooner England are away from Eddie Jones, the better.

Dominant

The South African scrum is one of the most feared weapons in Test rugby, and for good reason. Such is the strength in depth of the Springbok front rows, there are genuine debates over whether the starting front row or bench are better. England has one of the strongest scrums in World Rugby, so to see them demolished so effectively just shows the quality of the Boks.

But you still see the Boks get it wrong sometimes, as they get pinged before the ball comes in for putting too much pressure on. In the case of most teams, you could understand wanting to push things to get a slight advantage ahead of the ball coming in, but if any team has the quality and the weight of pack to just hold off a moment, they will probably still be able to dominate the scrum, while if anything, it will likely then highlight the opposition’s own attempts to get an advantage before the ball comes in.

In a closer game, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Italy v South Africa

After last week’s historic victory over Australia, Italy were on to Genoa to face South Africa. The World Champions were fielding a strong side, but without Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus following his ban for a series of disgusting tweets blaming Wayne Barnes for last week’s defeat to France.

Italy were clearly bouyed with confidence after last week’s win, but maybe a little too much as Tommaso Allan floated his first pass into touch just 5m from his try line, but Italy were let off as the Springboks chose to go quick and Faf de Klerk found himselfin touch as he went down a non-existent blind side. It was only a minor reprieve, though, as the visitors spread the ball wide on their next possession, and Willie le Roux took advantage of the inside defence blitzing up and leaving Ange Capuozzo covering 2 men to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the opposite corner. Despite the early setback, Italy were still looking to play attacking rugby, and a South African offence at the breakdown allowed Allan to cut the deficit to 2 points with a penalty from 40 metres. Cheslin Kolbe immediately responded with a penalty of his own after Giacomo Nicotera cleared Siya Kolisi beyond the breakdown at the restart, but the Azzurri hit straight back with some quick hands from Michele Lamaro sending the looping Capuozzo through a gap and over for a try, with Allan’s conversion giving the hosts the lead. As the second quarter began, Allan and Kolbe traded penalties as both teams looked to play positive attacking rugby, and after half an hour, Bongi Mbonambi peeled off a maul to crash over for a try, though the placement of the ball seemed very delayed and he was probably lucky to stay on the field after telling referee Matt Carley to “referee both sides”. Italy were straight back on the attack and threatening the South African line, but after they kicked a penalty to the corner, the Springboks pack managed to nullify the catch and drive to turn the ball over, and the teams went in at the break with the score 13-18.

Eben Etzebeth soon made his entrance just minutes into the second period, but the first points came from the boot of Tommy Allan as Faf de Klerk chased a kick from an onside position, but the Azzurri failed to deal with the restart, allowing Kolbe to win the ball in the air and go in for the try unchallenged, though he hurt himself doing so and had to be replaced by young fly half Manie Libbok, whose introduction immediately opened up the attack, allowing Arendse to go over for his second try just minutes after the restart, Libbok taking over the kicking duties and landing the conversion from the touchline. Italy were still looking to attack, but a penalty to the 22 failed to find touch as they looked to find a quick response, and South Africa made them pay as Kwagga Smith crashed over for the try the next time the Boks made it into the Italian 22, while the driving maul send Malcolm Marx over for a try just after the hour. The hosts refused to let their heads drop though, and after going the length with some beautiful varied attacking rugby, Lorenzo Cannone continued an impressive start to his Test career by crossing for his 2ⁿᵈ Test try. South Africa soon hit back though the rampaging ginger rhino Steven Kitshoff, but the game soon faced a long stoppage after Edoardo Padovani got his head in his wrong place in a tackle at the restart. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, a great backs move off a scrum saw le Roux go through the gap and feed Willemse—now playing on the wing—for a try, while a late break for Arendse allowed hi to put Cobus Reinach over for a try right at the death, Libbok kicking the conversion for a 21-63 victory for the Springboks, though the game still ended on a high for Genoa-born Pierre Bruno as his proposal was accepted after the game in front of a cheering crowd.

Pride

Let’s be honest, an Italian win against that Springbok squad was always going to be a dream. The important thing here for the Azzurri was that they backed up last weekend’s win with a good performance. And you could argue that they did exactly that.

Yes there were a few costly errors, but this was a great performance from the hosts in front of a cheering crowd, and they were every bit as in the game as the Boks in the first half, while the visitors’ superior quality proved the difference as the game went on. But even then, they never let their heads drop and continued trying to play their game, highlighted by Cannone’s late try.

More importantly, this is a team who are playing with a clear identity and shape right now—which is more than can be said for some Tier 1 Teams—and the players are seeing the positive results from playing this way, which will just continue to encourage them, and with players like Capuozzo, Alessandro Garbisi and Lorenzo Cannone coming through, and Jake Polledri continuing his return from injury with Gloucester, they are creating even more depth in their squad.

Expect to see this team continue to build in 2023.

The answer?

I’ve been saying for a while that South Africa have an issue at fly half, but could Manie Libbok be the answer? The 25-year-old from the Sharks came on for just his 2ⁿᵈ cap, and while he was probably helped by the arrival of Eben Etzebeth and the bomb squad providing quicker ball, he calmly slotted into the fly half position and took over control of the game alongside Willie le Roux with an assuredness that far exceeded his Test experience.

While Damian Willemse has his moments, he looks much more suited to the utility back role right now, whereas Libbok looks like a legitimate option at fly half, especially as South Africa look to start playing a more attacking style of rugby, as he has the range of passing to keep the attack varied, is comfortable switching with Willie le Roux as play demands, will willingly take the ball to the line and on top of all that, will be able to take on the kicking duties!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s crazy to think that he has not been given more of a chance to stake his claim this year, and I think that Jacques Nienaber needs to give him the start next week against England and at least let him play an hour, if not the whole game. If given a fair chance, he could legitimately be pushing Handré Pollard for the starting spot.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v South Africa

A Saturday full of rugby came to an end in Marseille as France hosted South Africa. A hugely physical start saw Faf de Klerk’s early offside give Thomas Ramos an early kick from range, which he despatched with ease for a 3-0 lead. With Willie le Roux back in at 15, South Africa were looking much more comfortable than last week, but things became much harder after 11 minutes as Pieter-Steph du Toit was sent off for a dangerous clean-out to the head of Jonathan Danty. As both teams continued to look to play positive rugby, a turnover by Charles Ollivon caught Kwagga Smith offside for Ramos to double the lead, while the World Champions found their lineout reliability taking a huge hit, and when France finally found themselves with possession in the visitors’ 22, Cyril Baille managed to force himself over from close range. While the French were starting to take hold of the game, they were struggling to deal with the Springboks’ driving maul, and one such maul earned the visitors a penalty just inside the French half which Cheslin Kolbe kicked to put them on the board after 25 minutes, while the next one 5 minutes later saw Siya Kolisi break out as it collapsed to go over for a try without any tackler even getting close. As the half came to a close, Ox Nche was penalised for not rolling away, and Ramos successfully bisected the posts for a 16-10 lead at the break.

Another penalty from Kolbe cut the lead to 3 soon after the restart, but when Faf de Klerk failed to effectively clear his lines under pressure from Cameron Woki, a mighty French maul allowed Thomas Ramos to almost immediately take the lead back out to 6. What had already been a crazy game then took it’s next massive twist, as Antoine Dupont was given a red card for taking out Cheslin Kolbe in the air just 8 minutes into the half, and after a series of penalties in the corner, the South African forwards attacked infield and then he ball went back blind for Willie le Roux to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the corner, de Klerk kicking the conversion (having taken over kicking duties while Kolbe underwent a HIA) to put the Boks ahead, before kicking a penalty minutes later. France hit back with a Ramos penalty just before the hour. As both sides emptied the benches going into the final half hour, Maxime Lucu and Sekou Macalou just combined to force Kurt-Lee Arendse into touch as he went hunting another try, but the French wing was pinged moments later for getting back to his feet when held, and with both de Klerk and Kolbe off the pitch, Damian Willemse found he target with his penalty. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, South African replacement Deon Fourie was sent to the bin for an offence at the French maul, while Romain Ntamack made way for Mathieu Jalibert, but it was the forwards who put France back ahead, as their siege on the try line saw Sipili Falatea pushed over the line with a pick and go, but a first miss of the night from Ramos left them with just a 1-point lead with 5 minutes remaining. As the clock ticked down, a huge scrum from the French against the depleted Springbok pack allowed Thomas Ramos to kick the lead to 4 points. South Africa secured the restart, but a crucial turnover from Yoram Moefana won the ball back for Les Bleus and they held out for the final 30 seconds for a 30-26 victory.

Pushovers

One thing that will likely have Fabien Galthié a little worried will be just how effective the Springboks maul was. Despite being a (very big!) man down, the Springboks were making France look like Japan, such was the ease they were making metres with the maul.

Now granted this isn’t France’s ideal pack (or biggest, with players like Paul Willemse missing) and the sheer number or injury-enforced changes made early on won’t have helped, but these were not fringe players packing down against the Springboks and being made to look they they were facing a team 2-3 age grades above them. As the game went on, the French pack had some success themselves with the driving maul, but they still looked at risk whenever the visitors were setting the maul.

France have a wonderful all-round team, but teams with big physical packs will look at those maul and perhaps see a chink in the French armour. The good news is, with almost a year still to go, there is still plenty of time to work on this.

Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way

Is there anybody more underrated in Test rugby than Willie le Roux. Often panned online by fans, and continually looking to be replaced by the coaches, the experienced fullback continues to show his quality when given the chance.

Granted he isn’t the best defensively, but what he does is so vital to the Springboks attack, as he plays the second playmaker role, comfortably coming in at first or second receiver depending on the phase and what the team are looking to do, while when he takes the ball around the 13 channel, there are very few players who will time the simple pass tot he winger so perfectly while making it look so easy.

Right now, South Africa have a serious issue at fly half, but it is notable just how much less of an issue this is when le Roux is there to assist them, as he takes so much pressure off of them and allows them to focus on what they do best—a perfect example being how last week Damian Willemse’s runs with the ball brought the attack to a standstill, while this week they looked like a way to draw in defenders and look for a gap to exploit.

So go ahead and keep hating him, he may just be the difference between defending the World Cup or losing in the quarterfinals.

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 10 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.

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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 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.

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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: South Africa v New Zealand

2022 Rugby Championship Round 2: South Africa v New Zealand

Round 2 of the 2022 Rugby Championship kicked off with a twist, as Round 1’s fixtures were repeated, leaving South Africa again hosting New Zealand, this time in Johannesburg. The All Blacks came into the match on the back of a 3-match losing streak that had seen them fall to 5ᵗʰ in the World Rankings, but they started much better than last week, releasinging Ardie Savea down the left wing. And while he was stopped just short of the line, Damian Willemse was sent to the bin for cynically not rolling away to prevent a quick recycle, though a brake foot infringement from Samisoni Taukei’aho after New Zealand opted for a scrum allowed he Boks to clear their lines. New Zealand were finding some early success on their left wing, but an interception from Pieter-Steph du Toit suddenly put the 14 men on attack, and though he was stopped short, he offloaded to Lukhanyo Am, who was held up on the line. Am did successfully dot down a few minutes later after a looped pass from Aaron Smith went loose in his own 22, but the All Blacks got a reprieve as Luke Pearce adjudged that they had won the ball back just before that courtesy of a knock-on from Ox Nché, and so Willemse’s sin bin period ended with the game still scoreless, though the home team had also been forced into an early reshuffle in the back line, with Jesse Kriel suffering a head injury and being replaced by Willie le Roux—moving Am to the wing and Willemse into centre. The first points of the match finally came early in the second quarter, Richie Mo’unga sparking a break down he right wing with some quick hands to evade the defender shooting up and releasing Will Jordan and Rieko Ioane, and while they were finally stopped n the South African 22, the defence was caught offside, allowing Mo’unga an easy first kick at goal. A break from Caleb Clarke as Aaron Smith drew the cover at the edge of a breakdown brought the All Blacks straight back up to the same spot on the pitch, and after a series of phases earned another penalty advantage, Will Jordan got the ball in space out wide and sent his captain Sam Cane over in the corner for the try. And just minutes later, the All Blacks were threatening the line again, and after a couple of high tackles stopped early efforts, Taukei’aho eventually forced himself over from close range, Mo’unga adding the extras for a shock 0-15 lead. Jacques Nienaber looked to the bench early, introducing Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Jasper Wiese, and after the trio were involved immediately in a solid lineout and maul, the ball was spread wide to Am, who slipped his tackler and just managed to stretch out and reach the line, Pollard adding the extras to give the team—and the crowd—a much-needed boost. And when the Springbok pack won a scrum penalty right as the clock turned red, Handré Pollard stepped up to nail the penalty from within his own half, reducing the deficit to just 10-15 at the break.

South Africa started the second half still on the front foot and an early Pollard penalty cut the deficit to 2 points, but Mo’unga was soon able to kick one of his own after Jasper Wiese tackled Aaron Smith after the whistle. A huge penalty kick to touch put the Springboks back in the All Blacks 22, and after a series of strong carries in the middle, le Roux released Am out on the right wing only for Caleb Clarke to just drag a toe into touch before he could offload. However the home side has a penalty advantage and went back to the corner, however Ardie Savea made a crucial jackal to win a turnover as they threatened the line. A break from Am had them straight back on the attack, though, and after making big ground and drawing all the nearby black shirts, he threw a wide pass to send Makazole Mapimpi over uncontested, only for Luke Pearce to adjudge that Am’s break was helped by a block from the offside Jaden Hendrikse, so instead of pulling level with a conversion to take the lead, South Africa found themselves going a further 3 points behind courtesy of Mo’unga’s boot. There was no denying Mapimpi’s next try though, as Marx forced a turnover straight from the restart and Willemse sent a wide looping pass over about 5 men to send the wing over in the corner, Pollard’s touchline conversion making it 20-21 as the clock hit the hour. With just a quarter remaining, New Zealand tried playing out from their own 22 but debutant prop Fletcher Newell dropped a simple pass, and as Hendrikse hacked the ball into in-goal, he found himself blocked by replacement Beauden Barrett, who was sent to the bin just moments after coming on, while Pollard kicked the penalty to give the Boks their first lead of the game. New Zealand soon found themselves with a lineout just outside the home 22, but replacement hooker Codie Taylor saw his throw pinched by Franco Mostert, and then suffered the further indignity of having his throw penalised for not being straight, and the South African scrum took advantage of George Bower trying to walk around the outside to earn a penalty and kick themselves back into the New Zealand half. Despite being down a man, the open nature of the game suited the All Blacks, and Rieko Ioane’s break down the left wing brought the Kiwis back into the South African 22, an the team kept the pressure on to eventually see Ardie Savea’s offload find David havili, who stretched out for the try with 6 minutes remaining, Mo’unga adding the extras for a 5-point lead. With 3 minutes remaining, Mapimpi tried to run from deep but found himself turned over by Sam Whitelock, and a kick to deep from Jordie Barrett held up just in the field of play, forcing le ROux to play the ball and try clearing from the corner under heavy pressure, gifting the All Blacks a lineout just 5m from the try line, and after the maul and a series of carries were stopped on the line, Scott Barrett managed to force himself over to secure the win and deny the World Champions a losing bonus point, Mo’unga adding the extras to complete a 23-35 victory.

Poor opening

Did South Africa get their selections and tactics wrong for this game?

Obviously the loss of Jesse Kriel so early could not be expected, but the choice to have a 6-2 split on the bench forced a reshuffle that was far from ideal with Am being moved out to the wing, where he can be less involved defensively and will also not be able to compete for kicks as well as a wing would. And whether it was due to the early yellow card and then the reshuffle or not, but the defence looked to be much less willing to shoot up this week compared to in round 1, which game the All Blacks forwards a chance to get some momentum before contact and gave the backs a little more time to get their shape.

But besides that, there were also the selections of Dweba, Nché and Vermeulen, who were all removed after 30-35 minutes. Dweba wasn’t even in the original 23, only coming in after Bongi Mbonambi was injured, and he made it very clear that there is a substantial gulf between him and South Africa’s top 2 hookers. Aside from being responsible for one of the New Zealand breaks, he was also killing the Springboks at the set piece, having one early throw stolen and another deep in the red zone go askew, and even one overthrow that led to a decent South Africa attack did not look deliberate; while at the scrum, an early brake foot infringement meant that he was coming under extra scrutiny. Given Marx’s form, it was no shock to see Nienaber make the change after just 30 minutes in an attempt to gain some control.

Meanwhile in Vermeulen it was very clear that we were seeing the return of a quality player from injury, as he did not look close to 100%, and you can’t help wonder if Nienaber was expecting a much more deflated New Zealand side than they found themselves facing.

While the Boks have the depth of quality to recover and make a game of this, the match was lost in the first 35 minutes. And just over a year out from the World Cup, with a high likelihood that these teams meet in the quarterfinals, this is a timely reminder of how you have to get your tactics right to beat the All Blacks, even when they’re at their worst.

Silver lining to a very black cloud

While this victory should not be enough to save Ian Foster’s job, it is a welcome and timely reminder that it would not take much to get the All Blacks back to being a legitimate threat in time for the World Cup.

Richie Mo’unga was given a rare chance to not just start but have full control of the back line—as many of his chances to start have seen Beauden Barrett allowed to run the game from 15— and while he didn’t have the same in-your-face pressure as last week’s team faced, he managed to to get the ball moving much more effectively than we had seen from New Zealand in a while, with the ball repeatedly being got out to the wings, where they had players like Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke and Ardie Savea all just waiting for the opportunity to get up a head of steam into the space in front of them.

Meanwhile, the protection around their catchers under the high ball was much better, taking away an area that had been a real weapon for the Springboks last week, and th forwards were making ground with much more determined carrying, even Sam Cane looked much better than he had at any point since his return from injury.

And the other big success that needs mention is 24-year-old loosehead Ethan de Groot. Though he did give away a couple of penalties around the park, he put in an assured performance at the scrum against Frans Malherbe, one of the most destructive scrummaging tightheads in world rugby. With Joe Moody unavailable and Bower continuing to struggle at the moment, de Groot should be given the starting spot for the remainder of the tournament.

Things were still far from perfect for the All Blacks, with far too many unforced errors, but this will be a timely reminder that there is a good team here, just waiting for the right head coach to unlock them.