2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

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


Ireland

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

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

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

Japan

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

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

England

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

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

Tonga

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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

South Africa

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

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

France

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

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

Argentina

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

Australia

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

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

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

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2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

2021 Rugby Championship: Argentina v Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle for number 10

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v South Africa

2021 Rugby Championship: Australia v South Africa

With the 2021 Rugby Championship entering its fourth round, last week’s shock victory for the Wallabies over World Champions South Africa had really opened up the table. With this round being a reverse of last week’s fixtures, the Springboks had an immediate chance to get revenge, but they almost went behind after just 4 minutes after a break by Samu Kerevi off first phase ball was ended only by Andrew Kellaway failing to keep hold of Folau Fainga’a’s offload. The Springboks soon had a chance of their own with a 5m lineout, but after Eben Etzebeth broke off early and was brought to ground, he was adjudged to have crawled along the floor. The Wallabies were soon back on the attack, and after Faf de Klerk was sent to the bin for cynically killing the ball, it took them just a few phases from the resulting 5m lineout before Len Ikitau stepped out of Handré Pollard’s tackle and crossed for his first Test try. Pollard cut the lead with a penalty, but Ikitau was soon over for a second try, after a clever inside pass from Tom Banks to the late-arriving Marika Koribete helped create an overlap on the right, with the wing then sending the young centre over in the corner. With South Africa back to 15 men, the game tightened up, and Pollard kicked 3 penalties to one from Cooper, while Lachlan Swinton also spent 10 minutes on the naughty step for a no-arms tackle on Duane Vermeulen.

Having cut Australia’s lead to just 3 points by half time, the World Champions took the lead soon after the break, with Faf de Klerk putting in a clever grubber down a narrow blindside and Lukhanyo Am beating the turning Reece Hodge before dotting the ball down—a small atonement for last week. However they could not match up to the Wallabies for long, and the introduction of Pete Samu from the bench just opened the game up even more, with Marika Koroibete starting the final quarter with his first 2 tries of the campaign. With the game entering the final 10 minutes, the Wallabies held a 13 point lead and the South Africans were pushing for a try, but some solid Australian defence saw Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi each winning crucial turnover penalties, while Cobus Wiese was given a yellow card for going off his feet to hit Kerevi in the head at the second turnover, allowing the Wallabies to clear their lines and hold on for a 30-17 victory that will see them climb into the top 3 of the World rankings and go just 1 point behind South Africa in the table.

Finely balanced

It’s amazing how just a couple of personnel changes can completely change a team, but that seems to be what has happened here with the Wallabies. With Quade Cooper coming in at 10 and not needing a second playmaker at centre, it has given the Wallabies the opportunity to play a more physical 12 in Samu Kerevi and a 13 in Ikitau who can exploit the space provided.

With that midfield, coupled with a strong and dynamic carrier in Marika Koroibete, and you have a back line capable of running riot and creating space for Banks and Kellaway. However a great back line still needs a pack to help them, and they are developing that too. Taniela Tupou must be close to having his membership to the front row union revoked with the way he plays in the open—just look at his input for Koroibete’s try! Meanwhile in the back row, Michael Hooper is always a danger in space, while Rob Valentini just looks more comfortable throwing his weight around with every match. and then when Pete Samu comes off the bench, he brings another dynamic carrier who also has the strength to beak tackles.

By having these carriers, Australia now have not just the necessary physicality to break the gainline, but the players to follow that up and keep the team on the front foot with 3 or 4 phases of hard carrying. Then add in the handling skills of some of these players like Tupou and Kerevi, and there is the distinct threat that one line break could be all it takes for the team to get over for a try.

Wrong man

While I think that Australia got their selections almost spot on this week, I think that South Africa made a big mistake. With Pieter-Steph du Toit missing trough injury, Franco Mostert was moved into the back row and Malvin Orie given the start at lock. While this selection would fit how the team has played of late, they finally chose to play attacking rugby in this match, and I think the selection of Mostert at flanker hurt them.

This is nothing against Mostert, he is a great player with an incredible engine, but the open game is then asking so much more of him. A better selection would have been one of the three back rowers on the bench: Kwagga Smith. The former 7s star is an incredible talent, but his speed and ability to get around the park is much more effective in an open game like this than the tight territorial battles we have seen the Springboks play of late.

Wanting Mostert at flanker to provide a third lineout option was understandable during the Lions series, but with Duane Vermeulen back in the line-up, this isn’t necessary. South Africa have great strength in depth, Jacques Nienaber now needs to start considering which players are better for the type of game they are looking to play.

Captain Fantastic

While doing the double over the World Champions is already cause for celebration, it was even more so for Michael Hooper, who was becoming the Wallabies’ most capped captain. With 113 caps to his name (placing him 28ᵗʰ all time for most-capped rugby players) and at only 29 years old, her certainly has the chance to add plenty more caps to his tally before his career comes to an end.

And those caps are all well-earned. The openside is a fantastic talent, one of the very best fetchers in the Southern Hemisphere, but also with the leadership and an all-round game that sets him apart from many other 7s. Hooper’s work rate is unmatched, and even in the worst Australian performances, he will often still stand out as one of the best players on the park. He has great handling skills and the speed to be like another centre when the team is on the attack, but also the strength and grit to match any back rower in the more physical side of the game. And as this tournament has proved, he’s not afraid to spill some claret for his country.

Perhaps it has been due to playing so much of his career in the shadow of David Pocock, perhaps it is the way Australia have been so up and down through his career; whatever the reason, I don’t believe that Hooper gets the wider acclaim that he deserves. Considering how frequently he has had to adapt to new laws at the breakdown during his career, when he hangs up his boots in the (hopefully still far away) future, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him remembered as one of the best opensides to play the game.

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 got 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: 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.

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

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

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

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

Midfield might

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

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

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

Power pack

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

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

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

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v Australia

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

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

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

A familiar issue

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

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

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

On target

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

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

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

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

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 4)

The Bledisloe Cup may already have been decided last week, but the Rugby Championship (or Tri Nations, as it is being called this year with South Africa absent) was still on the line as New Zealand faced Australia at Suncorp Stadium.

Both teams made a number of changes, but it was the Wallabies who got the better start as they collected Reece Hodge’s chip into the All Black 22 to set up Tom Wright for a try just 3 minutes into his Test debut. The All Blacks soon hit back, going through the phases to create space for Reiko Ioane to cross out wide. Reece Hodge kicked a penalty to put Australia ahead, and when Ofa Tu’ungafasi was shown a red card for a high tackle on Tom Wright, it looked like the game was swinging in their favour. However, New Zealand were next to score through a Jordie Barrett penalty, before Lachlan Swinton’s debut came to a premature end 35 minutes in with a red card for a high shot of his own. Marika Koroibete followed Swinton off the pitch in the final minute of the first half (though just for 10 minutes), but the Wallabies managed to hold n for a halftime score of 8-8.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Wallabies opened up the scoring in the second half with another Hodge penalty, and Koroibete returned to the field just in time to deny Sevu Reece in the corner, though it came at the expense of a 5m lineout, which the All Blacks drove over for Codie Taylor to score, Barrett hitting the conversion. Hodge kept the scores close with another penalty, before New Zealand saw Scott Barrett sent to the bin for cynically playing the ball on the floor. The Wallabies took advantage of the extra man, kicking the penalty for 3 points before Taniela Tupou crashed over from close range with just 5 minutes left, Hodge kicking the conversion for a 24-15 lead. With the game back to 14v14 for the final minutes, Tupou Vaa’i crashed over and Jordie Barrett added the conversion to bring it back within 2 points, but some dogged defence from Marika Koroibete forced a knock-on after the restart and the Wallabies were able to see out the final minute for a 24-22 victory.

On the up

With a new head coach in Dave Rennie, the Wallabies squad is clearly at the start of a post-World Cup rebuild, with a number of young inexperienced players being brought in and given the chance in these early matches. While the results haven’t always been there over these first 4 games, there have been positive performances on the whole. This was probably the most impressive performance to date, given that they were missing 3 key players in James O’Connor, Matt To’omua and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

Playing Reece Hodge at fly half gave much more control and composure, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move out to centre to provide some experienced support for Lolesio at 10 against Argentina. Hunter Paisami is quickly becoming the reliable rock in midfield, while Wright’s impressive debut shows that the Wallabies have at least 3 great options on the wing with him, Koroibete and Filipo Daugunu.

Meanwhile in the pack, Matt Philip looks like he has been playing international rugby for years, Harry Wilson continues to impress and Lachlan Swinton was doing a great job as an enforcer until his red card. And then let’s not forget in the front row, where Allan Ala’alatoa and Taniela Tupou are one of the best 1-2-punches at tighthead in international rugby!

If Australia can continue to build on these early performances, they will be a dangerous opponent in the next couple of years.

Their own worst enemy

As great as Australia were in this game, the All Blacks were their own worst enemy and need to take a long hard look at their discipline during the week. New Zealand conceded 12 penalties in this game and spent almost 75% of the game without a full complement on the pitch.

Now, Tu’ungafasi’s red card was a little unfortunate as it clearly wasn’t a deliberate attempt to cause injury, however it was just another example of players not getting low enough and then driving their body up for the big hit, and with the contact coming directly to the head/neck area, Nic Berry had no choice but to give the red card.

If Tu’ungafasi’s was unfortunate, Scott Barrett’s yellow was nothing short of moronic, as he was clearly on the floor having been part of the breakdown and somehow inexplicably thought he could get away with slapping the ball out of Nic White’s hand. You could maybe get away with it in amateur rugby, but a professional, international tournament with cameras everywhere? Not a chance! Sevu Reece also gave away some stupid, costly penalties as well and in my opinion had a poor game with his place on the line.

Poor discipline is often down to poor coaching, and with Ian Foster’s first 4 matches all coming against a rebuilding Australia but including a draw at home and a loss, he needs to get things sorted out fast, or the success of Scott Robertson with the Crusaders will keep him on a very short leash.

Debut disappointment

As an All Black, you never want to make your Test debut in a (usually rare) loss, but for 2 players, today’s debuts were even more disappointing.

Akira Ioane is a highly talented back row – so much so that I picked him in my Uncapped XV back in early 2018. Though he went through a patch of bad form, he has got back to his best and earned this start, performing well until he was pulled to make way for Tyrel Lomax following Tu’ungafasi’s red card.

Meanwhile, Will Jordan was forced to wait until the 65ᵗʰ minute of this match to finally make his debut, despite being one of the best players in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Unfortunately, he found himself leaving the field just 5 minutes later wit an injury, before he even got to touch the ball!

Hopefully Jordan’s injury is nothing serious and he can look to start against Argentina next week, as I feel that the All Blacks will look to use their wider squad a little more. Hopefully these upcoming Tests against the Pumas will see players like Jordan, Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Asafo Aumua given the chance to earn their spot on the international stage.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 3)

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v New Zealand (Bledisloe 3)

New Zealand and Australia met for the 3ʳᵈ time in 4 weeks, but this time at ANZ Stadium in Sydney to kick off the 2020 edition of the Rugby Championship. Usually contested by Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa, the South African’s late return to rugby as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the World Champions pulled out of this year’s tournament.

The Wallabies couldn’t have got off to a much worse start, as wing Filipo Daugunu was sent to the in within a couple of minutes for tackling Caleb Clarke in the air. The All Blacks positioned themselves in the Australian 22 and when the defenders rushed to cover the open side, the New Zealand forwards stayed on the blind side to create a massive overlap, from which Karl Tu’inukuafe crashed over for his first Test try, converted by Richie Mo’unga. Jordie Barrett soon found himself joining Daugunu in the bin for leading with a forearm, but the All Backs remained in control and thought they had extended the lead when Dane Coles dotted down a cross-kick from Mo’unga, only for replays to show that he did not have sufficient control. Caleb Clarke crossed the line a few minutes later but was denied by a wonderful covering tackle by Marika Koribete, but with both teams back to 15, Mo’unga ran a reverse off Aaron Smith and beat Brandon Paenga-Amosa for pace to go over in the corner. As the half hour mark approached, Mo’unga reacted quickest to a chip over the defensive line by Beauden Barrett and outran the cover to score under the posts and convert, before a catch and drive lineout saw Dane Coles score from 5 metres out, Mo’unga converting for a 0-26 halftime lead.

The second half started much better for the Wallabies, as Jordan Petaia broke through the All Blacks defence just over a minute after the restart and after he was finally brought down 10 metres short of the line, Noah Lolesio took advantage of a scrambling defence to crash through a gap and score on his debut. With the second half proving a much tighter affair, Mo’unga added 3 points from the tee on the hour mark, before Hoskins Sotutu broke off a 5m scrum to the blind side and feed replacement wing Reiko Ioane to go over in the corner, with Mo’unga again converting. The win was secured by this point but Jordie Barrett put the cherry on top, running a beautiful out to in line off Mo’unga to break through on halfway and go over next to the posts to give Mo’unga an easy conversion. The Wallabies kept fighting to the end and almost had a consolation try at the death through Koroibete, only for Jordie Barrett to make a try-saving tackle and preserve the 5-43 scoreline – a record margin of victory in the fixture. This 2-0 scoreline after 3 matches meant that the All Blacks secured the Bledisloe Cup for the 18ᵗʰ consecutive year with next week’s 4ᵗʰ Test to spare.

Youthful inexperience

Australia were dealt a massive blow ahead of this fixture, with both Matt To’omua and James O’Connor ruled out through injury. This led to Dave Rennie picking an incredibly inexperienced midfield of flyhalf Noah Lolesio (20 years old, uncapped) and centres Irae Simone (25, uncapped) and Jordan Petaia (20, 4 caps). While a talented trio of players who I think all have great international careers ahead of them, playing as a midfield trio against the All Blacks seemed a little too soon.

Unfortunately, their inexperience on the international stage showed, especially in the first half, with too much possession kicked away, especially while Jordie Barrett was in the bin, during which time all 3 of these players kicked the ball away aimlessly when in the New Zealand half, gifting possession back to the All Blacks when they should have been going through the phases to utilise their numerical advantage.

Personally, I think that Dave Rennie would have done better starting Reece Hodge in this match in place of Lolesio. While the Brumbie is arguably the more talented fly half, Hodge would have added that top-level experience in a crucial position, while his howitzer of a right boot could have come in handy in wet conditions.

Suffice to say, this will have been a great learning experience for the youngsters, Rennie just needs to hope that they can quickly get over a record defeat.

Mo’unga magic

I’ve been critical of the way that Richie Mo’unga is used in the All Blacks set-up, but this match gave a tease of just how great a player he is.

Often in internationals, he is more or a game manager, but in this match – like when he plays for the Crusaders – he got the chance to really show off his skills. Though small in stature, he is deceptively strong, but he also has the pace and footwork to be a threat in space, as he showed with both of his tries in this match, beating Paenga-Amaso to the outside as he ran a reverse for his first try in the corner, while slightly angling his run to avoid Koroibete and Lolesio for his second. He almost had a hat trick too, reacting quickest to Daugunu dropping a high ball, only for him to lose his footing when clean through – though even then he had the presence of mind to look for the offload to Jack Goodhue.

I’m still not fully sure of the Mo’unga/Barrett/Barrett 10/15/14 combination as I don’t think it gets the best out of Mo’unga or Jordie Barrett, but it certainly looked better in this game.

Playing smart

When you’re playing against the All Blacks, you need to be smart with your possession and not give it away cheaply. Unfortunately, that was the exact opposite of what the Wallabies did for much of this match.

As well as aimless kicks, the team were frequently looking for the offload, despite the slippery conditions, and this unsurprisingly led to a high number of turnovers. I imagine that much of it came from youthful exuberance and wanting to make something happen there and then, but at this level of the game, you need to be more disciplined.

If you give the All Blacks possession, they will make you pay, but if you can keep hold of the ball and keep going through the phases, playing smart rugby, you have the chance to tire them and create chances.

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