2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Australia

With New Zealand having earned their victory over Argentina, it was time for part 2 of the double header as World Champions South Africa faced off against hosts Australia. After the return of Izack Rodda and Samu Kerevi to the Wallabies 23 last week, this time it was the return of Quade Cooper that was grabbing people’s attention, and he god off to a solid start, trading 2 penalties apiece with Handré Pollard. The game was a tight affair, but could have taken a drastic turn on 15 minutes as Siya Kolisi tip tackled Tom Banks and was lucky that the fullback braced his fall with an arm, leading to just a yellow card for the Springbok captain. With the Boks a man down, Australia immediately took advantage of the extra space, and when Kerevi stepped inside Faf de Klerk, he created the space to send Andrew Kellaway over in the corner. The Springboks fought back, but failed to take their chances, with Pollard missing a penalty, then Lukhanyo Am fumbling the ball as he collected a grubber in the Australian in-goal under pressure from Tate McDermott. However a series of strong mauls forced the Wallabies pack to infringe, and as Kolisi returned to the pitch, Matt Philip was sent to the bin, and the change in numbers saw the Boks maul over for Bongi Mbonambi to score. Pollard missed the conversion, though, while Cooper maintained his 100% record with two more penalties to open up an 11-19 lead at the break.

Pollard had a chance to cut the lead early in the second half, only for his attempt to come back off the post, but his next attempt successfully cut the lead to 5. Australia’s next attack showed promise but came to an early end as Willie Le Roux was adjudged to have knocked on deliberately, leading to another penalty from Cooper and a 10-minute spell on the sidelines for the fullback, where he was soon joined by Australia’s Folau Fainga’a following a no-arms tackle to the lower leg. With the Boks again having a man advantage in the pack, they one again drove a 5m lineout over for a try, with replacement hooker Malcolm Marx the beneficiary this time. As the game entered the final quarter, Cooper kicked another penalty, but a second try for Marx from a third 5m lineout gave the Boks a late lead, though replacement fly half Damian Willemse pushed his kick wide to the right. It looked like a valiant effort from the Wallabies would fall just short, but a powerful drive at a later South African scrum saw Kwagga Smith drop on the loose ball and, with the rest of his pack being pushed backwards, Nic White was able to win the holding on penalty and Cooper, playing his first Test since 2017, stepped up to complete his perfect day off the tee and give the Wallabies a 26-28 victory.

He’s back!

With a couple of below-par performances, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see a change to Australia’s playmaking set-up this week. And while it was a shame to see Noah Lolesio drop out of the 23, there was the excitement of seeing what Quade Cooper could do in his first Test appearance since facing Italy 4 years ago. Looking back at the match, it’s safe to say that it worked out well.

I suggested after the last match that being the sole playmaker in the backline and dealing with the goal kicking was too much pressure on Lolesio’s young shoulders. But Cooper has the experience to shoulder this responsibility and finished the game with a 100% (8/8) record off the tee for a total of 23 points, which ended up being the difference as South Africa’s misses off the tee proved costly.

But more than that, Cooper got the back line firing in a way Lolesio hadn’t against the All Blacks. Kerevi’s inclusion last week started to improve things, but with Cooper now pulling the strings the centre was truly unleashed, as Cooper would take the ball on to interest the defence, then play his man through a gap. Similarly, Cooper also did a great job of varying the attack to keep the vaunted South African defence guessing, much like when Finn Russell was introduced in the final Lions Test this summer.

At 33 years old, Cooper clearly isn’t the future of Australian rugby, but he is a talent that the team will truly benefit from having among them as the youngsters gain experience at this level. And with the World Cup just 2 years away, could he bring his career to an end at the showpiece event in France.

Broken down

We’re so used to seeing the Springboks dominate at the breakdown, but in this match, they really seemed to struggle. While I think part of this is down to missing a player with the nous of Pieter-Steph du Toit, I think that they were genuinely shocked by the ferocity with which the Australians attacked the breakdown. And not just the initial battle over the ball, but the continued fighting and nuisance-making from the Wallabies players once the Boks had secured the ball.

Sometimes the Wallabies went a little too far and gave away a penalty, but on the whole they toed the line just right, and that left Faf de Klerk under too much pressure to be able to control the game in the way that we expect him to, putting more pressure on Handré Pollard and the rest of the team. Don’t be shocked to see the Boks trying to better secure the ball at the back of the rucks this week.

Tipping the balance

Watching Australia in recent weeks, their back row has looked so much better once Pete Samu has come off the bench. Michael Hooper remains one of the best—and potentially most underrated—7s in world rugby, while Rob Valentini is successfully growing into his role as the muscle of the trio. However, I feel that Lachlan Swinton is finding it difficult to be an enforcer at 6 following such a quick step up to international level. Similarly, I also feel that, as someone who usually plays flanker, Valentini is a little limited at number 8, as he does not have that same experience especially at the back of the scrum.

Personally, I think that moving Valentini to 6 would allow him to become that big carrier similar to how Akira Ioane is currently being utilised by the All Blacks, then bringing in a more specialised number 8. Bringing in either Samu or Harry Wilson would then provide the Wallabies with another carrying option as both run incredibly smart supporting lines.

At Test level, you need to be getting the most out of all 23 players in the squad. I’m not sure that the starting back row has quite done this in recent weeks, but the change I’ve done above could be the next step on making the Wallabies a constant threat again, while also increasing the likelihood that they are attacking with quick ball on the front foot.

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina

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

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

Lacking

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

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

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

Plan B

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

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

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

Limited opportunity

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

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

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

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v New Zealand

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v New Zealand

After a few weeks of wondering what involvement New Zealand would have in the remainder of this season’s Rugby Championship, the All Blacks were back in action facing Australia in Perth for the third and final Bledisloe Cup game of the season. With the All Blacks having already secured the Bledisloe Cup for another year by winning the first 2 fixtures, the timing of this third Test at such an early stage of the Rugby Championship meant that there was still plenty to play for.

This game saw the first appearance of Samu Kerevi in a Test since the Rugby World Cup as part of a relaxation of the Giteau Law, and for a moment it looked like it ha proved an immediate boon as he broke from a ruck deep inside his own half before feeding Marika Koribete to just get over the line just minutes in, only for the try to be ruled out as a TMO referral rightly adjudged that he had been a part of the ruck and therefore not in a legal position to pick up the ball. While the Wallabies had a couple of early attacking opportunities, it was the All Blacks who looked more dangerous, and after Beauden Barrett opened the scoring with a pair of penalties, they found the opening try on 17 minutes. In what appeared to be a planned move, Beauden Barrett slotted a grubber kick through the midfield defensive line, which Will Jordan ran onto, quickly feeding the ball to Brad Weber as he realised Tom Banks had committed by coming up for the grubber. Weber took the ball on and after drawing the covering Noah Lolesio, he released fullback Jordie Barrett for an easy jog beneath the posts. Barrett’s game would soon have an early end , though, as just before the half hour mark he went up for a high ball, but as his leg shot our to keep his balance, he caught Marika Koroibete in the head and was sent off. The extra space created by Barrett’s dismissal allowed Australia to be a bit more expansive with their attacking, and after a series of offloads helped the Wallabies make their way into the New Zealand 22 and earn a penalty advantage, Noah Lolesio kicked to the corner, where Andrew Kellaway outjumped Anton Lienert-Brown but failed to secure the ball. The penalty advantage meant that they ha another chance though, and after kicking to the corner and winning the lineout, Koroibete went over as part of the maul, only to be denied again as the TMO picked up that he had gone to ground with the ball earlier in the maul and got back to his feet, thereby being adjudged a double movement. With the half coming to an end, the missed chances from Australia were compounded after a series of penalties beginning with the double movement took the All Blacks from their own 5m line to a lineout 15m from the Australian line, and when they won the ball and got the drive going, David Havili joined the forwards in their push and found himself with the ball as they crossed the line, dropping down for the try and a 0-18 halftime lead.

With the second half starting and the clock ticking down on Australia’s numerical advantage—due to the Rugby Championship using the law trials that include allowing a replacement to be brought on 20 minutes after a red card—the Wallabies knew that they needed to begin taking their chances, and looked like they may be in as Samu Kerevi stripped Scott Barrett of possession and saw the ball quickly spread to Andrew Kellaway, only for the wing to be chased down by Reiko Ioane. With the 20 minute red card period coming to an end, Damian McKenzie came onto the pitch, but Australia finally found themselves converting a chance despite the even numbers, as Tate McDermott sniped from a ruck deep into the 22, and after a couple of phases kept New Zealand on the back foot, Samu Kerevi twice popped up at acting scrum half to keep the ball quick before sending Folau Fainga’a over to finally get them on the scoresheet. However, any Australian hopes of momentum swinging in their favour were soon dashed as they kicked a goal-line drop-out (another of the law variations) only just beyond their 22, and when New Zealand spread the ball wide to the right, Akira Ioane bumped off a blitzing Koribete, fended off Len Ikitau and dummied Lolesio before drawing the cover and feeding Will Jordan for the easiest of finishes. As the game continued to open up, Lolesio broke deep into the New Zealand half, but the Wallabies tried forcing things with the wrong personnel in place and Matt Philip’s pass to Fainga’a was intercepted by David Havili, who ran it all the way back to give the All Blacks another try. Just minutes later, it looked like they had another long range run-in as Beauden Barrett released McKenzie with a switch out wide, only for replays to show that McKenzie fumbled the pass and only recovered it after in bounced off the offside Barrett. This reprieve, combined with some substitutions, appeared to reignite the Wallabies, and when Pete Samu sniped down the blind side of a ruck, he was able to feed the newly-introduced Nic White for an immediate try. However the All Blacks were still looking dangerous when given any possession in the Wallabies half, and when some quick hands from Will Jordan left a blitzing Koribete in no-man’s land, Akira Ioane made it close to the try line before feeding Anton Lienert-Brown to crash over, while George Bridge completed the scoring for New Zealand just minutes later as TJ Perenara intercepted Rob Valentini’s offload to Reece Hodge, drew all the covering defenders as he scampered up to halfway, before kicking into wide open space, with the ball holding up perfectly for the replacement wing. With just a handful of minutes left, a Bledisloe Cup clean sweep was confirmed for the All Blacks, but the Wallabies did manage the last word as Nic White ran lateral off the back of a ruck trying to find a gap, before feeding Tom Banks on the switch to crash over from close range, giving the fulltime score a slightly more respectable look at 21-38. With a bonus point from each of their victories over the Wallabies, the All Blacks leapfrog World Champions South Africa to go top of the table, while Australia find themselves bottom of the table after 2 rounds on points difference.

A welcome return

This was a match of note for fans of Australian rugby, as it saw a slight relaxing of the Giteau Law that only allows overseas-based players to feature for the Test team if they have accrued at least 60 caps and 7 years of playing Super Rugby in Australia. For this match 2 players who don’t fit those criteria were allowed to join the squad, namely Japan-based Samu Kerevi, who started at 12, and replacement lock Izack Rodda, who is returning from Lyon to join the Western Force.

While Rodda’s impact was limited in this match, Kerevi was heavily involved in many of Australia’s best moments, carrying hard and on good lines to great effect. While Hunter Paisami has been growing into his role as the more physical centre, Kerevi is in his prime years and also has the Test experience that this rebuilding Wallabies side so desperately needs. Even just having another player like him in the Tests squad will be so important for the younger players, while also increasing the depth the Wallabies have in midfield when everyone is available.

While I can understand that Australian Rugby wants to keep it’s big names in the country, the career of a professional rugby player is hard and relatively short, so if they can’t make the same money at home as they can abroad then they should not be penalised. By allowing the big names to go abroad, it allows the next generation to come through and gain plenty of top flight experience earlier in their career, which will surely only add more depth to the national team in the long run. Just imagine what Matt Philip and Darcy Swain will learn from playing and training beside players like Rodda and Will Skelton, while players in other top flight leagues could also be developing skills different to those playing Super Rugby, which could add another dimension to the national team’s tactics.

Hopefully with this relaxation, we are seeing the first steps towards either abolishing the rule altogether or reducing the criteria to make more overseas players eligible.

Too much too soon

Imagine being just 21 years old and already the starting fly half for a Tier 1 nation who faces the All Blacks 3 times a year. Well that’s the situation for Noah Lolesio. The young Brumbies stand-off is a clearly talented player, but I can’t help feel that there is too much pressure being put on young shoulders right now.

With the back line picked to face the All Blacks this weekend, Lolesio was left as the sole playmaker in the starting XV, but also the only goal kicker. Now Lolesio’s goal kicking has not been great of late, and this was just another example, with him missing a 3-pointer in the first half that international goal kickers should be nailing in their sleep under normal conditions. That’s got to be knocking his confidence, and yet he also has the pressure of running the team.

Personally, I think that at this stage in his Test career, Lolesio would benefit from having a second playmaker in the lineup, either in the centre as Matt To’omua often is, or at fullback, where Reece Hodge would be an option. Not only could they take over the goal-kicking duties and allow Lolesio to focus on running the game, but they would also be able to provide support in open play and also to allow him the flexibility to attack with ball in hand himself without the team losing all shape.

Hopefully with the new format Super Rugby Pacific next season, Lolesio will begin to see more regular action against higher quality opposition. Combine that with Tests against a slightly more forgiving opposition and hopefully we will see Lolesio develop into the star he looks like he can be. However if not given support, he may find himself in trouble.

Opportunity knocks

While I’m still not sure that Ian Foster is the right man at the helm of the team, one thing that can’t really be argued is that there is no more dangerous team on the transition than New Zealand. What do I mean by “on the transition”? I mean that moment when the ball gets turned over and New Zealand transition from defence to attack.

While so many teams will use a turnover as an opportunity to either secure possession by keeping things close for a few phases or secure territory by kicking in behind a team that isn’t set to defend a kick, the All Blacks will frequently look to exploit the opposition defence not being set by immediately moving the ball away from the point of contact and finding a spot either in the midfield or out wide where they can have a back or a back row exploiting the space around a forward who has been caught out of position. In doing so, they can get over the gain line and in behind the opposition defence, where there will then only be maybe a couple of players able to chase back or cover across. Meanwhile, the team trusts the ability of their players to make the break, which means that when they get through and draw whatever cover is left, they have so many players on the shoulder in support, they either have options of who to pass to, or the first support man has support for when that final defender gets over to cover.

So how do you stop this? Well it’s very difficult because the whole idea of attacking on the transition is that it catches you out as you are in an attacking setup and ned to organise defensively. So really, it is all about being disciplined with the ball and not giving the All Blacks that chance to turn the ball over. By playing an open and attacking game, Australia play into New Zealand’s hands as there is more chance to a mistake. South Africa on the other hand keep things very tight and organised, as we saw throughout the tournament. Wins against Australia and Argentina (who they face in Rounds 3 & 4) will be one thing, but expect a completely different type of challenge when the All Blacks face the Springboks in the final 2 rounds. That will be the true test for Ian Foster’s side.

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v South Africa

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

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

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

Paying the penalty

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

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

Mishandled

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stunted

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

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

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2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: South Africa v Argentina

Last weekend, South Africa were defeating the British & Irish Lions to win the series 2-1. This weekend they found themselves opening their Rugby Championship campaign at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium against Argentina. After the physicality of the last few weeks, it was no real shock to see a heavily changed 23 from the Springboks, but they were on the board in a matter of minutes via the boot of Elton Jantjies after lock Marcos Kremer was pinged for not rolling away. Between bouts of kick tennis, the Pumas were looking to attack, but an attempt to spread the ball on 12 minutes saw the ball go to floor as Sebastián Cancelliere tried to find Bautista Delguy on the loop, and when Cobus Reinach recovered the loose ball, he was able to just hold off the chase of a despairing Rodrigo Bruni to score the opening try. Argentina were soon on the board with a penalty from Nicolás Sánchez, but the fly half was beaten in the air by Eben Etzebeth just minutes later, and Jantjies’ cross kick was just collected on the touchline following a juggle from Aphelele Fassi for his second try in 2 games. South Africa were taking control and winning the penalties, but rather than pressing the boot on the Pumas’ neck, they chose to try building a score with the boot, with 6 points for Jantjies and a miss from Frans Steyn, but this allowed the Pumas to stay in contention as Sánchez kicked 2 penalties in the final 5 minutes of the half for a halftime score of 21-9.

Anyone hoping that the Boks would open things up in the second half were sorely disappointed as it was more of the same, so much so that I lost count of the number of times I yawned. Sánchez missed a drop goal on the first attack of the half, but settled for 2 more penalties, which were cancelled out by Jantjies while Steyn missed again. With the game entering the final 10 minutes, it looked like The Boks had earned their bonus point as Fassi went over for another try, but it was ruled out for an offence by Malcolm Marx in the build-up. However with just 2 minutes remaining they found the all-important breakthrough as a strong run from Marco van Staden put them on the front foot and acting 9 Morné Steyn fed replacement scrum half Jaden Hendrikse to score in the corner on his debut. With the clock in the red, Argentina launched one last attack and when they made it up to the Springbok line it looked like they may make the Boks pay for doing the bare minimum to get a bonus point by taking it away at the death, but Matías Alemanno lost possession as he forced his was over the line and the game ended in a 32-12 bonus point victory for the World Champions.

A show of depth

After such a hard Test series against the Lions, it was no shock to see the Springboks fielding a very different squad this weekend, with the majority of the 23 not involved or only playing a limited role in the previous Tests. And yet to put in such a dominant performance was a strong reminder of the strength in depth that the Boks have.

They have the personnel to put out 2 completely different back lines that could both excel at international level (Damian Willemse did not have a good time at 15 here but is a truly talented player) and that would still leave players like Curwin Bosch, Herschel Jantjies, André Esterhuizen, Rohan Janse van Resburg and Morné Steyn left over. Meanwhile in the pack, they have at least 3 solid options at each position in the front row, while their world class ideal back row of Kolisi, Vermeuelen and du Toit is backed up by such quality that even Dan du Preez—who has been a star for the Sharks and then Sale—could only make the bench for this game. If they are weak anywhere, it is perhaps at lock, where they have 4 stars in Etzebeth, de Jager, Mostert and Snyman, but could find themselves short of experience if a couple of them were unavailable at the same time.

Yesterday, I wrote about how much the All Blacks team is chopped and changed under Ian Foster. Well the Springboks squad is largely settled, allowing them to improve as a unit, but they are still taking their chance to test the wider squad and those on the fringes, to ensure that they have every chance of putting together a run of wins.

Be Prepared

What really became clear to me during this match was that we had 2 teams at different stages of preparation. While many of the Springboks 23 didn’t feature against the Lions, they were training and preparing alongside those that did, and then went straight onto this. As a result, they were not just match-fit, but fully match-ready, having just seen off the best of Great Britain and Ireland.

By contrast, Argentina played Tests against Romania and 2 massively understrength Wales teams, before then having the majority of a month off. That meant that not only had the team not reached the same level of competition in their preparation from the tour, but they also then had a drop off in intensity between the July Tests and this competition.

As such, the Pumas came in undercooked, and this was accentuated even more by the high level of a South Africa team that was at peak intensity, so much so that even star back rowers Rodrigo Bruni, Pablo Matera and Facundo Isa could barely make an impact on the game, while the handling error that led to Reinach’s opening try was a timing error caused by the team not being up to speed and then accentuated by blood replacement Cancelliere having just entered the fray mere seconds before for his first Test cap since 2019.

Expect to see the Pumas grow into the tournament over the coming weeks. As for the Springboks, it’s probably more a question of whether they want to start playing attacking rugby or just putting everyone to sleep.

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2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Australia

With the British & Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa completing last weekend, it was time to get back to our annual rugby competitions with the beginning of the 2021edition of the Rugby Championship. Opening the tournament was a match between New Zealand and Australia at Eden Park, the 2ⁿᵈ of 3 Bledisloe Cup matches in 2021.

And it was last week’s losers Australia who were creating the early chances in Auckland, tough after making it to the All Blacks 22, Noah Lolesio saw his wide pass intercepted by Reiko Ioane and the winger, given a chance in his preferred position of outside centre, used his pace to take the ball the distance for the opening try. The Wallabies answered with their next attack though, drawing the defence in tight with a series of phases, before Lolesio chipped out wide to Andrew Kellaway, who stepped inside Damian McKenzie to go over in the corner, though a missed conversion from Lolesio kept the All Blacks ahead. This try appeared to spark the All Blacks, who grew into the game, and the Australian defence just succeeded in holding them out on a couple of occasions at the expense of just 1 penalty from Richie Mo’unga. Eventually the Wallabies defence earned a penalty of their own near halfway, but when Tom Banks chose to catch out the All Blacks with a tap and go, the support was lacking and the ball was quickly turned over out wide. The All Blacks took immediate advantage, spreading the ball out to Akira Ioane on the other wing who broke with support, dummying Kellaway to make more ground before finally feeding McKenzie, who offloaded to Brodie Retallick to finish the counter. As the game reached the half hour point, Lolesio cut the lead with a penalty, but his next kick proved costly. Attempting to clear his lines after the restart, the young fly half found his angle to the left touchline cut off by a charging Dalton Papali’i, so switched to kick to the further away right touchline. The ball came nowhere near touch and instead fell straight into the arms of Richie Mo’unga, who immediately countered deep into the Australian 2, and after a series of phases, Ardie Savea pushed over from close range. As the half came to an end, there was just time for the Wallabies to cut the lead with a try, with Rob Valetini drawing the defenders off the back of a 5m scrum, and feeding a looping Tate McDermott to go over beneath the posts, with Lolesio converting for a halftime score of 21-15.

After ending the first half on a high, the Wallabies were straight out the blocks after the break and soon found themselves with a temporary numerical advantage as Ardie Savea was sent to the sin bin. Looking to capitalise on the extra man in the pack, the team kicked to the corner, but Brandon Paenga-Amosa was unable to throw in straight and the chance as lost. And it didn’t take long for the All Blacks to make them pay for the missed chance, with Aaron Smith finding space down the blind side of a ruck to break away and feed Codie Taylor for a try, before Damian McKenzie kicked a monster penalty from inside his own half. If Australian hopes were hanging on by a thread, that thread was cut just moments later after Matt To’omua’s speculative wide pass was intercepted and ran back by Sevu Reece for yet another try. Codie Taylor went over for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the game on the hour and Will Jordan scored again just minutes later. However as the substitutions came on, the All Blacks appeared to drop off towards the end for the second week in a row, and Andrew Kellaway duly took advantage to go over in the corner for another try. With the clock in the red, both teams looked to end on a high, and when Kellaway fumbled, Will Jordan was able to collect the ball and hold up play to allow support to arrive before feeding David Havili, who went over to end the game with one last try, while Beauden Barrett converted for a final score of 57-22, the highest points total New Zealand had scored at home against Australia.

Own worst enemies

It’s harsh to say, but the Wallabies were their own worst enemies in this match. They had very few good chances to score and one of them as wasted by failing to correctly execute their own lineout correctly—an issue that isn’t new for Brandon Paenga-Amosa.

But even worse is when you look at the tries they conceded. Of the 8 tries New Zealand scored, 5 of them can be directly attributed to mistakes from the Wallabies, including all 3 of heir first half tries. Let’s start with the most obvious ones: the interceptions. While Kellaway scored 2 tries from the prior phases sucking in the defence, in the case of both interceptions, the Wallabies had not earned the right to go wide, which left defenders in position to exploit the wide passes, exactly like Richie Mo’unga’s try last weekend. Now for the remaining 3, let’s look at them in chronological order.

First up is Brodie Retallick’s try. Banks takes a risk by trying to catch the All Blacks out with a tap and go rather than a kick to touch, and credit to the Wallabies, they make ground to probably around the same area as where the kick would have gone out, however the break means that most of the Wallabies back line are involved in that first breakdown, so when Swinton knocks on and loses possession immediately after, the Australian defence is too narrow and—with Kellaway dropping back to defend the kick in behind—Rob Valentini is left exposed as the widest man in the defensive line with Paenga-Amosa inside him. It takes just a couple of wide passes to put Akira Ioane around the edge of the defence, with men in support allowing him to successfully dummy Kellaway and have men with him when he is eventually closed down.

Next we come to Savea’s try, and this is all about Lolesio’s kick giving Mo’unga the chance to counter and put the All Blacks on the front foot in the Australian 22. Mo’unga is in the pocket to buy time for a kick to the left hand touchline, but comes under pressure from Dalton Papali’i, who blitzes up alone to try charging down the clearance. Now in this moment, Lolesio has a couple of options. He could hold on tot he ball and try to step back inside to the left, where there is a small pod of players nearby including Michael Hooper, who could probably secure the breakdown with Papali’i on his own. The other options are to kick deep down the middle in an attempt to turn the All Blacks, or to kick for the right touchline, which is very far away so will result in very little ground gained. However, the New Zealand defence on that touchline has already dropped back expecting the kick, which actually leaves space for a kick pass to the right wing. Even if it doesn’t lead to a break, it gives them a chance to reset and build a safer platform from which to clear their lines. However, he instead appeared stuck in multiple minds, putting in a short central kick that also wasn’t high enough for his teammates to get into position to challenge for, allowing Mo’unga an easy catch with space to launch a counter, which put the All Blacks on the front foot deep in the Australian 22.

And finally, if we look at Havilli’s try, it all comes from Andrew Kellaway fumbling Lolesio’s pass in slippery conditions as they try to play for a meaningless try, with the ball being recovered by Will Jordan, who takes things from there. Cleverly noticing that Michael Hooper has already changed his running line to intercept a run to the posts, the Crusader instead runs a largely sideways route, that takes him towards the touchline but gives his support time to arrive. So when he is finally tackled, there are 3 defenders beyond him who have all overcommitted on trying to cover a run up the touchline, which leaves a wide open space for David Havili to run into after taking the offload.

To defeat the best teams in the world, you need to play close to perfect. This is too many mistakes at crucial moments, with the turnovers allowing the All Blacks to take advantage of a defence that isn’t set. If Australia want to have success in this year’s Rugby Championship, they need to be more accurate in possession and cut out these costly errors.

Coasting

While this may be another big victory for the All Blacks, I can’t help feel that the questions surrounding Ian Foster’s role should remain. They are far from the team that just a few seasons ago was on a run to try and beat the record for consecutive Test victories. Arguably, they have a better all-round fly half now in Richie Mo’unga, but it feels like there are very few positions where there is a clear pecking order, the others being lock (Retallick and Whitelock) and scrum half (Aaron Smith). Beyond that, though, the constant chopping and changing of personnel—admittedly not helped right now by injuries to Sam Cane and a number of centres—is leaving the all Blacks in a position where they are lacking the chemistry of past teams and making a lot more errors.

The players have a natural skill and level of quality that is currently getting them through games, and to say that they hardly reached 4ᵗʰ gear in this match says a lot about the quality of opposition they were against, with Will Jordan’s try notable as being a result of players just attacking a gap created by a gold shirt bursting out to claim a loose ball that Aaron Smith beat them to, allowing the All Blacks to create a break that they converted with ease.

Against a top team though—for example South Africa, France or (on their day) England—it will be a much harder test. Will this team be able to put together the level of performance required? Right now, I feel that they have the players with the potential to do so, but I feel that the team is far from ready…

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Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

Lions Tour 2021: Team of the Series

We are now a couple of days removed from the decisive third Test, which saw Morné Steyn’s late penalty hand the World Champions a 2-1 series win. So before we turn our attention from the Lions Tour and onto the Rugby Championship, all that remains is to pick the Team of the Series.

For this, I will purely be selecting based on the 3 Test matches, so players like Josh Adams and Tadhg Beirne who had solid tours but barely featured in the Tests will not make the squad. Now of course, the biggest issue with limiting myself to just the 3 Tests is that they were three of the worst matches that I have ever witnessed, so I hate to admit it but many of these selections came down to “who was the least worst?” rather than “who was the best?”

Let me know who would make your XV.

1) Trevor Nyakane: Had Wyn Jones been fit for the full 3 Tests then I think there could have been some more competition here, but injury limiting him to just over 40 minutes of rugby and the lack of consistency from Mako Vunipola or Rory Sutherland made this an easy win for the South African. Steven Kitshoff may have got the start for 2 of the Tests, but it was Nyakane who really shone, putting some poor performances behind him to justify his spot in the 23, winning a number of key penalties in the scrum.

2) Luke Cowan-Dickie: Bongi Mbonambi was far from his best, Malcom Marx didn’t get enough minutes and Ken Owens’ lineout issues were exploited, so Cowan-Dickie gets the nod here. Despite not quite reaching the level of the warm-up matches, he was the most reliable of the hookers, while his strong carrying and low body position caused an issue for tacklers.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Furlong did not always have things his own way but was largely reliable both in the scrum and around the park. Vunipola and Jones’ success against Frans Malherbe in the first and third Tests respectively did the Irishman a favour here.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Eben Etzebeth: Finally a position where it was hard to choose due to the high quality of performances. I am often critical of Maro Itoje as he too often toes the line of legality, but when he holds back just that tiny fraction and stays legal, he is a world class player and showed it throughout the series, with his performance in the first match arguably the performance of the series. Meanwhile Etzebeth did a great job of breaking up the Lions’ lineout at key moments, while also carrying hard in midfield to break the gain line.

6) Siya Kolisi: So as this series went ahead in South Africa, I am looking at the flankers from a South African point of view, meaning that 6 is the openside position. Tom Curry certainly had his moments, but what really stood out in his play were the penalties he conceded, while Kolisi combined solid play around the park with the burden of captaining the World Champions to a series victory.

7) Pieter-Steph du Toit: Courtney Lawes put in some solid performances, but nothing that stood out from what is expected of any player. The same can be said from Franco Mostert. Du Toit may not have even featured in half of the series, going off injured midway through the first half of the second Test, but while he was on the park he stood out, especially with his cleaning up of some erratic passing by Handré Pollard in the first Test.

8) Jack Conan: Boy did this series miss Duane Vermeulen. Kwagga Smith’s skillset did not suit the usual Springbok approach, while Jasper Wiese was a penalty machine. Jack Conan was quieter than ideal and butchered a fantastic opportunity to score in the second Test by carrying on what appeared to be a set move off a scrum rather than playing what was in front of him, but was by far the most impressive of the number 8s with a number of dynamic carries.

9) Faf de Klerk: Ali Price came close, but a couple of key interventions earned the Sale halfback the pick here. A fantastic game manager whose style of play is perfect for the current South African approach. Mad a try-saving ball-and-all tackle on Conor Murray off a Lions scrum 5m from the Springbok line, while put in a clever grubber for Lukhanyo Am’s try in the second Test.

10) Finn Russell: Maybe a controversial pick here as he only played 70 minutes, but Pollard was erratic at times with his passing and goal kicking, while the Lions’ tactics limited Biggar far too much. Russell came in and barely puta foot wrong, varying the game up much more and causing real problems for the South African defence. If only we’ seen more of this.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: Is Mapimpi one of he most underrated wings in international rugby? The wing is forced to play a largely defensive role and does it well, but when given the chance to score he was clinical, with a and an assist in the second Test. Imagine how dangerous he would be in a team that created more chances for him.

12) Robbie Henshaw: Damian de Allende was a solid reliable option at 12 and at many positions that would have been enough to earn selection, but unfortunately he finds himself up against Robbie Henshaw. Despite playing with a different centre partner in each Test (and shifted to 13 for the decider) Henshaw was reliable in both defence and attack, while his 2 breaks of note through the series were more than any other Lion managed.

13) Lukhanyo Am: Granted he wasn’t tested overmuch, but this series was anther great opportunity for Am to show his proficiency as one of the best defensive 13s in world rugby. Did a great job of shutting down a number of the Lions’ attacks and scored a crucial try as momentum shifted in their favour during the second Test.

14) Cheslin Kolbe: Arguably should have received a red and a yellow (if not 2 reds) in the second Test, but was allowed to play and earns his spot here. While quiet, his try was a timely reminder of his quality as he fended off Luke Cowan-Dickie and stepped Liam Williams. That Mapimpi and Kolbe basically earned selection by finishing off tries shows just how poor things were out wide.

15) Willie le Roux: The World Cup winner was relatively solid but far from spectacular, but even that was enough to beat out Stuart Hogg. It says it all that Liam Williams was in with a shot despite only playing in the decider, but his selfishness with a 2v1 was criminal. At least le Roux showed us how it should be done when given a chance later in the match, setting up Cheslin Kolbe for his try.

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 1st Test

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa v British & Irish Lions – 1st Test

The day Lions fans had been looking forward to since the Lions ended a tied series with New Zealand finally arrived: the day of the First Test between South Africa and the Lions. Unfortunately, the COVID-19pandemic robbed Cape Town Stadium of fans and reduced the quality of warm-up, but the First Test got off to a huge start, with the Lions immediately putting their hosts under pressure, only for Tom Curry to allow them to relieve pressure by advancing in an offside position as they tested Cheslin Kolbe with a high bomb into the 22. After this, the game turned into a close arm wrestle for control, with the Springboks taking the lead through 2 Handré Pollard, while Dan Biggar added one in reply. However, the tourists’ ill discipline continued and allowed the Springboks a lineout in their 22, from which they demolished the Lions pack and released a break to the line, only for Maro Itoje to win a crucial turnover penalty. The Boks may have been denied a try, but soon extended their lead with 2 penalties, but the Lions started building into the game and winning some penalties of their own, though both Biggar and Elliot Daly missed from range. With the clock ticking down on the half, Robbie Henshaw made the first real break of note in the game, but Willie le Roux recovered well to dislodge the ball as Henshaw was looking for a pass, and the teams went in at the break with the score at 12-3.

Things were immediately different after the break, with the Lions looking much more focused and earning 2 quick penalties to set themselves up with a lineout 5 metres from the hosts’ line. Luke Cowan-Dickie found his jumper, and as the maul came together and span around, the English hooker was given the easiest of rides over the line for the opening try. With their lead cut to 2 points, the Springboks thought they had found an immediate answer as Damian de Allende released Lukhanyo Am down the left wing. As cover came across, the centre kicked downfield and Willie le Roux won the race to dot the ball down, only to be adjudged offside by TMO Marius Jonker. Just minutes later and the Boks were breaking down the same wing again, with Pieter-Steph du Toit cleaning up a wild pass from Pollard and releasing Makazole Mapimpi. As the wing came under pressure, he chipped back infield, and when du Toit failed to collect the ball (with Jonker deeming there was no knock on) he collected his own kick and, with Stuart Hogg holding him up on the line, offloaded to Faf de Klerk to put the home team back ahead. The Springboks had only played 1 Test match since winning the World Cup (unless you count the strong South Africa “A” team that recently faced the Lions), and that lack of Test match fitness appeared to show as the second half went on, leading to the team conceding penalty after penalty. Dan Biggar kicked 3 penalties to take back the lead, before a tip tackle from replacement Hamish Watson allowed Pollard to pull the Springboks back within 2 points. South Africa thought that they had scored again with 10 minutes remaining as a poor pass from Kyle Sinckler was shovelled on under pressure, with the ball eventually being dotted down by de Allende, but they were again denied by the TMO, who confirmed that there had been a knock on just prior by Cheslin Kolbe. As the clock ticked down Owen Farrell extended the lead to 17-22 with a penalty, and after the hosts claimed the restart, Maro Itoje released the building pressure with a timely strip just after the clock entered the red, and Stuart Hogg put the ball into touch to secure a 1-0 advantage for the tourists in the series.

Tipping point

One moment that is sure to get some scrutiny over the week (and probably some words from Rassie Erasmus) came in the 64ᵗʰ minute as the Springboks were awarded a penalty for a tackle by Hamish Watson. Willie le Roux had gone up for a high ball, and while the Scottish back row successfully timed his tackle to ensure the fullback was on the floor, he then lifted his legs and took him beyond the horizontal position, with le Roux hitting the ground shoulder-first and going off injured.

This is a tackle that we have seen for years, and the way it has been refereed is that coming down beyond the horizontal is a penalty, with a landing on the shoulder a yellow card and on the head a red, so by all intents and purpses this should have been a yellow card. However referee Nic Berry called it just a penalty in live play and TMO Marius Jonker chose not to intervene during the gap in play as le Roux received treatment.

Now I do have a little sympathy for Jonker. As a South African, he should have been nowhere near this Test, but was called up as a late replacement for Brendon Pickerill. Though I’m sure Jonker would treat this like any other Tests, he must have been aware that every call or non-call would be picked up by either South African or Lions fans as him favouring his nation or overcompensating to avoid calls of bias, and there had already been a couple of controversial calls that had not been helped by poor camera angles, so I can only think that he decided Berry’s initial confidence at the time was enough to stay silent. r perhaps he realised that the Boks were lucky to not have lost a an to the bin for the sheer number of penalties they had given away up to that point in the half, so thought to even things out.

Whatever the reason, the Boks should have had a man advantage going for 10 of the remaining 15 minutes, which could have changed the game, as neither Mapimpi nor Cheslin Kolbe were really given any space by the Lions the few times that South Africa tried to do anything with the ball.

I can’t imagine that there will be any further ramifications for Watson, as the tackle did not look worthy of a red, but the Boks will now have to hope that Willie le Roux can recover sufficiently for the next Test.

Mauled

The Springboks are well known for their aptitude at the lineout—both offensively and defensively—and the maul. So to see the success that the Lions had here was a shock to say the least.

But it came from clever recognition from the tourists. With the Lions looking to get the ball on the move quickly, the Boks countered by having lineout jumpers Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth set up to cover the back and middle of the lineout. In doing so, it left Ali Price having to throw a longer pass to get the ball out to the backs, but what it did do was surrender the front of the lineout to the tourists.

And the Lions took full advantage of this, throwing the safe front balls, setting up the mauls and quickly putting as much pressure through that one side before the Boks could get significant numbers around the side, which resulted in the Lions spinning the maul around to put the majority of the home pack out of the game, which led to Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try and a few other strong surges at the maul, while a number of others were stopped illegally by the Boks.

Expect a different defensive strategy from the Boks next week, as they won’t be able to afford to keep giving the Lions such an easy platform to build off.

Changes for number 2

While the Lions may have won the game, there was certainly room for improvement, so don’t be shocked to see Warren Gatland make some changes for the second Test.

In the front row, I expect to see Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tadhg Furlong to keep their starting spots after strong performances, but with Wyn Jones coming back in after being ruled out of this game with an injury. Maro Itoje was arguably the best player on the pitch for the Lions and when he keeps his discipline is one of the best locks in the world, so he will keep his spot alongside talismanic leader Alun Wyn Jones. In the back row, Tom Curry got on the wrong side of Nic Berry but I expect him to keep his spot alongside Jack Conan and Courtney Lawes, who did what was asked of him despite the feeling that Tadhg Beirne could have done that and more.

In the halfbacks, I expect the partnership of Ali Price and Dan Biggar to continue. Moving into the centres, I expect Robbie Henshaw to retain his place, but move outside to 13 to accommodate Bundee Aki, as Elliot Daly was unsurprisingly unable to replicate his strong performances against a more physical midfield. In the back 3, Duhan van der Merwe had a solid game, but I expect him to lose his starting place to Josh Adams, who will have had an extra week to get his emotions in check, with Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg keeping their spots.

On the bench, I don’t expect many changes, with Ken Owens and Kyle Sinckler holding their spots, while a great performance in the scrum from Mako Vunipola will elevate him to the bench ahead of Rory Sutherland, who was meant to be the replacement in this game before Jones’ injury elevated him to the starting spot. to complete the cover for the pack, Hamish Watson and Tadhg Beirne will keep their spots, as I don’t envision any citing for Watson. After solid performances off the bench, Conor Murray and Owen Farrell will keep their spots, while I think that Liam Williams‘ ability to also cover fullback will see him just hold out van der Merwe for the 23 shirt.

Who do you think will feature next weekend?

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Lions Tour 2021: Stormers v British & Irish Lions

Lions Tour 2021: Stormers v British & Irish Lions

With the first official Test between the British & Irish Lions and South Africa just a week away, the tourists played their final warm-up match, against the Stormers in Cape Town. The Lions welcomed back Stuart Hogg and Robbie Henshaw—who have been out of action for a large part of the tour—while also giving a debut to injury replacement Marcus Smith, and perhaps it was this lack of familiarity in the back line that took the team a while to get going, with it taking almost 15 minutes for them to threaten the Stormers line, Luke Cowan-Dickie being adjudged to have committed a double movement. Tim Swiel eventually opened the scoring on 20 minutes with a simple penalty, but the tourists were building into the game and when Tadhg Furlong broke through the line just before the half hour, the Lions took advantage of the front foot ball to put Adam Beard over just a couple of phases later. This improving performance continued in the scrum, which had been an early struggle for the tourists, and when they kicked a scrum penalty to touch 10m short of the line, the maul spun infield to release Luke Cowan-Dickie for a try that his barnstorming performance deserved. The Lions were getting on top of the game, and finished the half with another try as a long pass to the blind side from the ever-dangerous Ali Price left the tourists with a 3v2 overlap, which they converted to put Jonny Hill over in the corner, with Marcus smith going 3/3 in the half for a 3-21 lead.

It was more of the same after the break as the Lions were taking control and the Stormers were struggling to complete their tackles. A clever inside pass from Marcus Sith found Daly on the angle and he offloaded to release Jack Conan, who ha an easy run from halfway. Over the next 15 minutes, Tadhg Beirne twice got across the try line, but lost control grounding the ball under pressure their first time, while the second was called back for a forward pass in the build-up, but after making a raft of changes around the hour mark—including the introduction of returning tour captain Alun Wyn Jones—the team re-settled and got back to scoring ways as Zander Fagerson pushed over from close range with a pick and go. The Stormers finally saw themselves get some possession and territory entering the final 10 minutes, but lost control as they pushed for the line, and when the resulting scrum saw the Lions win a penalty, Marcus Smith found a gap to break from his own 22 into the Stormers half, where he fixed the covering defender and released Louis Rees-Zammit for a try. There was still time for one more score, though, and when the Lions broke down the left wing through Duhan van der Merwe, a series of offloads in a tight channel eventually saw the ball come to Sam Simmonds with free air in front of him, allowing him to score his first try for the British & Irish Lions, while Smith completed a wonderful performance with a perfect day off the tee to make the final score 3-49.

The sky’s the limit

What an incredible couple of weeks it has been for Marcus Smith! The 22-year-old finished off a wonderful season by being on the winning side of one of the greatest Premiership finals extra, before getting his first England caps (arguably later than deserved) with starts against both the USA and Canada. Things didn’t stop there though, as when he was removed just after the hour against Canada, he was informed that he had been called up to the Lions party, as Finn Russell would be missing time though injury.

Despite only 2 senior international caps to his name, Smith was given the start in this match against the Stormers and clearly trusted enough to go the distance, with no replacement flyhalf on the bench. While he had a slow start to the game as he adjusted to the conditions, he went on to have a fantastic game! Yes, there were a couple of handling errors, but e was far from the only one to struggle with the impact of the greasy surface at Cape Town, but these were far outweighed by the good that he did, with a great range of passes and kicks and playing a crucial role in a couple of the tries and going perfect off the tee.

But this is what we have already come to expect from the young Harlequins star. What was more surprising was to see the way Smith reacted to being targeted in defence, getting involved and racking up the tackles rather than shirking away and leaving the duties to his back row and centres. Marcus Smith has sent a message to everyone with the speed of his rise in the last month and the consistent quality of performance. Could he cap off a crazy summer with a Test cap? Injuries happen on tour, and if he carries on with that quality in training, I wouldn’t rule it out!

Guess who’s back

While Smith was drawing plenty of attention, even more was being directed towards a man at the opposite end of his career, as tour captain Alun Wyn Jones returned to the touring party just weeks after a dislocated shoulder against Japan that should have seen his tour over. Coming off the bench just before the hour, the lock made up for lost time with a great performance, testing his previously injured shoulder with some solid defence and also having some lovely touches in attack. Right now, it’s hard to imagine him not being at least in the 23 for the opening test next weekend, and a place in the XV certainly seems possible.

But should he even be on the tour right now? When the Lions’ touring party was announced, 37 names were announced. Clearly, this was an indication that they felt that this many players was enough to make it through the tour, on the proviso that an injured player could be replaced. And that is exactly what happened with Jones and Justin Tipuric, who were both replaced after the Japan game by Adam Beard and Josh Navidi. Yet now, the touring party is up to 40 players, with Jones retuning to the party, Marcus Smith’s callup despite Finn Russell staying with the squad and the call-up of Ronan Kelleher—who is unlikely to even feature in a match now that just the Tests remain—purely because it was decided that a fourth hooker on tour could come in handy.

Once you have picked your squad, new players should only be coming in to replace outgoing players, or it is simply watering down the distinction of being part of the British & Irish Lions. Smith’s arrival in South Africa should have been partnered by Finn Russell going home, while Jones (once replaced) and Kelleher should only have gone out to South Africa if other players got injured and needed replacing.

Of course, Warren Gatland has previous for this, with the decision to call up the “Geography 6” mid-way through the tour of New Zealand 4 years ago. With moves like this, the honour of a Lions call-up is being diluted. Is this due to a foreign head coach not quite understanding how special the honour is, or is this a sign of the way rugby is changing. Only time will tell

The 23

Last weekend following the second match against the Sharks, I tried to predict the starting XV for the first Test against the Springboks. Now, with all of the warm-up games played, I’m looking to revise this line-up, but also go a step further by predicting the entire 23 that will be named on Wednesday.

Before I start, I want to make very clear that this is not my picks for the 23, but rather what I believe Warren Gatland will go for.

  1. WYN JONES: Rory Sutherland didn’t have the best of times at the scrum in this game (albeit against a prop who was often scrummaging illegally) and as such I think that Wyn Jones will take the starting spot in preparation for likely facing Frans Malherbe
  2. JAMIE GEORGE: It was a choice between the 2 Englishmen here, but with a number of more dynamic options elsewhere in the XV and due to a selection at lock, the more defensive Jamie George gets the start here
  3. TADHG FURLONG: Any coach would love the chance to pick between Furlong and Sinckler. Both bring so much to the team, but the Irishman’s carrying just gets him the starting spot
  4. MARO ITOJE: The Saracen was a star of the New Zealand tour and has been great once again, especially in the lineout. Picking him and George together also creates a lineout partnership that has plenty of experience at both club and national level
  5. IAIN HENDERSON: Don’t be shocked if Alun Wyn Jones ends up starting, and I certainly expect him to take the spot in the later Test, but the Irishman has done a solid job through the tour and offers an engine on offence and defence
  6. TADHG BEIRNE: Picking the Munster star at 6 provides an extra lineout option and an incredible engine. Beirne will tackle all day long, earn a couple of turnovers and also bring some dynamism to the attack
  7. HAMISH WATSON: It’s a real shoot-out between Watson and Curry for the 7 shirt, but with Beirne a legit turnover threat, the tireless tackling of Hamish Watson becomes more of an option, while he also has the ability to always make a metre or two in contact
  8. TAULUPE FALETAU: None of the 8s have really separated themselves from the others on tour, and if Tom Curry had spent some time at the position in a match I would have selected him here to create a super dangerous back row. However, I have instead gone for Faletau whose classy reliability is something Gatland knows well from his years with Wales
  9. CONOR MURRAY: The Munster halfback wouldn’t have even made my touring party had I been picking, but with selections being made elsewhere in the backs, a tactical kicker is needed at 9 and Murray is the one who is most likely to provide that for you
  10. DAN BIGGAR: Owen Farrell’s horror show against South Africa “A” came at an awful time, while also giving Rassie Erasmus a chance to point out some more tackles of questionable legality. Biggar runs the game so well and controls the air when competing for the high ball, so I have him starting at 10
  11. JOSH ADAMS: The Welshman had a quiet match against the Stormers, but continued to show his reliability in defence, while his attacking quality has been clear for all to see throughout the tour
  12. BUNDEE AKI: The Connacht centre provides a physical match for the Springboks, who will likely utilise Frans Steyn or Damian de Allende at 12, while he also has the ability to earn a couple of turnovers per game if a player doesn’t have sufficient support
  13. CHRIS HARRIS: Expect Robbie Henshaw and potentially also Owen Farrell) to come into the centre conversation in later matches, but Harris has certainly earned a spot in the Test XV with his reliable defence and capable attack. Harris is the perfect mirror image to Lukhanyo Am, the likely starter for the Boks
  14. ANTHONY WATSON: One of the later starters on the tour, Watson may not have had as many chances as some of his rivals, but has certainly taken them well. Showed his attacking quality and turn of pace in his first appearance, while his ability under the high ball was noticeable against South Africa “A”
  15. LIAM WILLIAMS: Poor Stuart Hogg. 4 years ago he looked set to star in New Zealand until a collision with Conor Murray ended his tour with a facial injury before the Tests. This time round, the Scotland captain has seen his chances limited by COVID isolation, and allowed Liam Williams to secure the 15 spot in his absence with some solid all-round performances and secure play under the high ball

Bench: Having just missed out on the starting spots, KYLE SINCKLER & LUKE COWAN-DICKIE will be looking to make an impact off the bench to earn starting spots in the second Test, while a couple of impressive performances of fthe bench in the last week have seen MAKO VUNIPOLA leapfrog Rory Sutherland for the 17 shirt. Covering the second row, you would have thought that Adam Beard had done enough in recent weeks, but he will probably be forced to wait as ALUN WYN JONES makes his way into the 23, while TOM CURRY will cover the back row and likely be let loose along with Cowan-Dickie with 20-30 minutes remaining. In the backs, ALI PRICE has probably been the form 9 on tour, so he just beats out Gareth Davies, while OWEN FARRELL will cover fly half and centre.

But that is only 22 players, and the final spot is a tough one to call. Should Gatland go for a traditional 5/3 split, I would expect Elliot Daly to take the spot, as he would provide versatile cover to all of the outside back positions as well as a howitzer of a left boot. However, I expect the Lions to play a tighter game and go for a 6/2 split, with COURTNEY LAWES coming in as the extra forward due to his ability to cover both the second row and blindside flanker positions, while you know that he will carry hard in attack and tackle tirelessly once brought on.

Do you agree with my predictions? If not, who do you see Gatland picking?

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Lions Tour 2021: South Africa “A” v British & Irish Lions

Lions Tour 2021: South Africa “A” v British & Irish Lions

With just 10 days until the first match of the 3-Test series, the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa took a step up in intensity with a match against South Africa “A”. Intended to be made up of the fringe players from the wider South African squad, however the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—which has heavily impacted the South African squad’s training and caused the cancellation of their second warm-up match against Georgia—resulted in the home team picking a squad full of World Cup winners and experienced international, turning this into an unofficial fourth Test.

If there were any questions over the home side’s ability to match up after so long without rugby at this level, the South Africans soon answered those questions by establishing an early dominance, with Faf de Klerk’s kick following a turnover just evading Willie le Roux on the bounce, while Anthony Watson put in a superb covering tackle to deny Sbu Nkosi in the corner, with the hosts being forced to settle for a penalty. However it was not long until the South Africans were crossing the whitewash, with promising Lions attack reaching an abrupt end as Owen Farrell’s attempted chip into the South African 22 was charged down by Eben Etzebeth, with Damian de Allende picking up the loose ball and feeding Nkosi to go the length. Ten minutes later and the South Africans were on the offensive again, only to be denied by a knock-on at the breakdown metres from the line. Given a reprieve, the Lions soon opened their account for the night with an Owen Farrell penalty, but a moment of magic from Cheslin Kolbe saw the wing beat Chris Harris and draw in Elliot Daly before feeding captain Lukhanyo Am for another try. As the clock ticked down, the Lions had a sustained spell of pressure in the South African 22, and after both Faf de Klerk an Marco van Staden were sent to the bin, Wyn Jones thought he had scored with the final play of the half, only for replays to show a clear double movement, allowing the South Africans to go into the break with a 17-3 lead.

The Lions’ numerical advantage continued after the break, and they finally took advantage of it, with Wyn Jones legally getting the ball over the line this time and Owen Farrell kicking the conversion and adding a penalty a few minutes later. As substitutions began to disrupt the flow of the game, Louis Rees-Zammit almost scored in the corner, but van Staden and replacement Damian Willemse just managed to bring him down short of the line, while at the other end, Steyn dragged a penalty just left of the posts as well as missing the target with a late penalty. That left the tourists with the chance for 1 more attack before the final whistle with a try needed to win the game, but Zander Fagerson’s handling proved costly and he knocked on in contact to bring the game to an end, with the Lions suffering their first loss of the tour, 17-13.

Holding back

While the ideal tour (from the Lions’ perspective) would have been a 100% winning record, I can guarantee that Warren Gatland would much rather lose this match than one of the official Tests. As such, there was an important balance to meet between sending a message to Jacques Nienaber’s squad, while also not overly tipping their hand towards their tactics for the Tests. As such, I think we saw a few areas where the Lions tried to hide their plans for the tests.

First up is in the lineout, where you may remember a few weeks ago they were regularly going long and direct to the centres. Well in this match it was the complete opposite, with the majority of throws going tot he very front of the lineout. It’s rather understandable, Ken Owens hasn’t always shown himself to be the most reliable on longer throws, so a quick up and down at the front was a reliable way to win the ball back against Eben Etzebeth and co. However, as I have theorised since before the touring party was even named, don’t be shocked to see Tadhg Beirne providing a third lineout option at 6, with a range of throws that also includes the direct throw to the centres and some quick throws to the front before the Boks are fully set.

But even more notable tactically was the decision to repeatedly go for the tap penalty in the South African 22 when they had a numerical advantage. With both a forward and a back in the bin, the scrum was the obvious call here, as the extra man in the pack would allow the Lions the possibility of pushing over for a try and maybe even increased the numerical advantage as Trevor Nyakane was struggling in the scrums for the second match in a row, while the missing man in the South African back line would also leave gas on first phase for the Lions to exploit. However, while taking the scrums here may have led to more success in this match, it may have also allowed the Springboks to see some of the Lions’ key strike plays ahead of the Test series, giving them 10 days to find an answer.

While in the moment it may have looked like poor decisions from captain Conor Murray, I firmly believe that there was method to the madness, which could end up being crucial in the Test series.

A wider picture

There was one other tactical decision from the Lions in this match that I also sincerely hope was for the same reasons as above, but also can’t help but worry that it may have been the way they are planning to play.

The Lions had some fantastic attacking moments in this game, as they used tip-on passes to break the line in midfield while also causing real problems by beating the South African blitz defence to the outside, with a number of outside back and back row players getting a chance to run at wide open space. However, while these moments were highly successful, they were few and far between, as the game regularly devolved into an arm wrestle between the packs and the inside backs, which then ended in a poor kick from the Lions—with Owen Farrell especially having a poor day kicking out of hand—gifting possession back to the home team or hoping that the wingers could do something special on the chase.

Granted, this probably wasn’t helped by Dan Biggar pulling out injured (his replacement Farrell looking well off the pace, no real shock when he’s been playing against semi-professional teams last season) Josh Adams pulling out last minute due to the birth of his child and then an early injury to Liam Williams bringing on Ellit Daly at 15, but these are professional rugby players, who should be able to analyse that by keeping the ball tight they were playing into the hosts’ hands, as the South Africans put pressure on the breakdown and caused a number of turnovers with their destructive counter-rucking. With players like Lukhanyo Am, Frans Steyn and Damian de Allende in midfield, and the incredible options in their back row, keeping it tight is not a smart move for the Lions, and they need to utilise the quality of their players in open space, while getting in behind the South Africans will then put the pressure on them to get back onside before they can compete at the breakdown.

Hopefully when the first Test comes around, we see a Lions team willing to take the match to the Boks out wide. If they continue with tonight’s tactics, then they could be in trouble.

Passing the test

Following the last game against the Cell C Sharks, I put my neck on the line by predicting the Lions’ starting XV for the first Test. With a number of those players involved in this game, as well as some who just missed out, did anyone put their hands up to secure their spot or challenge for the shirt?

The obvious name that needs discussing here is Tom Curry. The Sale flanker had an incredible performance, winning turnovers, securing ball and carrying hard while also showing good speed when in put through a gap by Maro Itoje. Against most nations, I would happily pick Curry at 6 with Hamish Watson at 7, but against the Springboks, I feel that the extra ballast of Tadhg Beirne (who would be my first choice at lock if I was selecting my dream team from every current player) at 6 will be essential, leaving Curry and Watson fighting for the 7 shirt. Whoever wins out will have certainly earned their spot, while the other is surly guaranteed a space on the bench regardless of whether Gatland goes for a 6/2 split or the traditional 5/3.

Sticking with the forwards and replacement Adam Beard put in a strong performance off the bench. I still see Iain Henderson and Maro Itoje as the likely second row pairing for the first Test, but with Alun Wyn Jones on his way back to South Africa, his injury replacement has a good chance of keeping him out of the matchday 23 for the first Test at least.

Moving out to the backs and while he may have become the latest player to fall victim to Cheslin Kolbe’s footwork, Chris Harris put in another fantastic performance. I remember when it was announced that he was joining Gloucester, I was disappointed to see my team signing a defensive specialist with nothing much else to his game. Well either my read of him was completely wrong or he has grown his game considerably, as he is now one of the best 13s in the game, a top defender who has also developed a strong attacking game and can even fill in as an emergency wing. While I felt there was a chance that Robbie Henshaw’s history with Gatland from the last tour and his experience partnering Bundee Aki would give him priority if he could prove his fitness, I think that Harris has now proved himself worthy of the starting spot regardless.

Similarly, Anthony Watson made my predicted XV after just 1 match on tour due to my knowledge of his qualities that would be beneficial against the Springboks. Well I feel even more confident in that call after this game, where he repeatedly found success against his opposition winning the ball in the air, and should have scored a try when he outjumped Willie le Roux for an Owen Farrell cross-kick, only for Farrell’s kick to not be quite deep enough to put him over the line. I’m sure Warren Gatland’s heart was in his throat when Watson stayed down with an apparent ankle injury, but he completed the game and will surely be given the weekend off in preparation for the Test series.

And finally we reach a player whose stocks rose by actually not playing. Dan Biggar was due to start but replaced by Owen Farrell as he recovered from a slight ankle sprain. With Finn Russell having not played since the first Sharks game and Marcus Smth only just arriving and only having 2 caps to his name, it looked like this was between Farrell and Biggar for the starting 10 jersey, but a poor 80 minutes for the England captain has surely left him hoping for a spot on the bench, as a couple of attacking cross-kicks were off the mark, a penalty kicked to the corner went into the in-goal and of course his poor attempt at a chip which led to the opening try. Farrell looked off the pace of international rugby, so Gatland will surely be hoping Dan Biggar makes a quick—and full—recovery.

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