The Rugby Championship is over, the ink is dry, the All Blacks have won and we the fans were treated to rugby of the highest quality. New Zealand still reign supreme. Their brand of rugby at the time was unplayable and 57-0 against an ever-improving South Africa is testament to just how powerless teams feel playing them.
South Africa and Australia could not be separated. Two draws is practically unheard of, a sign that as both national sides’ transitional phase is effecting them in very similar manners. Both got close to the champions but could not prevail. Argentina had sunny spells of rugby which were overshadowed by awful indiscipline and some terrible habits that die hard. The tournament raised questions, sparked debates and settled a few scores.
It feels repetitive to continually shower the All Blacks with rugby superlatives but when you watch them you can’t help but feel your jaw drop somewhat. That’s not to say they have been faultless. They struggled to contain a direct Australian side in the second half of the first test and the first half of the second test. Tevita Kuridrani, a hard, dynamic ball carrier burst plenty of tackles and challenged the All Black backline.
Furthermore, the fact they shipped 20 points or more in every game bar two, highlights that there are still ways to punish them. England will certainly have noticed how South Africa’s power game gave them issue in patches. When their half-backs aren’t gifted an armchair ride, there is potential to rattle them and disrupt their flow and rhythm.
What will really please Steve Hansen is how players such as Vaea Fifita, Damian McKenzie and Nepo Laulala stepped up to the plate. The unstoppable exodus of players fleeing for the lucrative lifestyle of France threatened to dilute New Zealand’s power. It did the opposite, it let riskier choices flourish on the main stage. New Zealand will always have depth.
Their desire to play rugby instead of chess is one of their greatest values. That may seem like a cryptic statement but many teams overthink rugby. As players, they trust in their ability to such an extent that they are happy to attack from anywhere. The set, robotic strategy that other teams follow doesn’t hamper New Zealand because they have faith in their skillset. Everyone is a danger to the opposition. The superstars of the side, Beauden Barret, Aaron Smith and Rieko Ioane grab the headlines, but number 1 through to 15 pose a different threat to opposing defences.
Lastly, they know how to win unlike say Argentina. When they were losing at half-time to the Pumas, they didn’t panic, they patiently broke down a side they knew would yield eventually. You can’t teach test match nerve and game management. Each side tested New Zealand for periods but class prevailed.
Can you really call it a successful campaign if you lose 57-0? All Blacks or not, no South Africa team should ever be dispatched by such an emphatic margin. They were hopelessly outplayed and ripped apart by the South African media for their troubles. Compared to last year though, the Rugby Championship should be considered as a remarkable success. They have been competitive in every game apart from that fateful drubbing at the hands of New Zealand.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Some players grew into their respective shirts. Siya Kolisi went toe to toe with some of the best flankers on the planet, besting Pablo Matera and Michael Hooper over the course of the tournament. Malcolm Marx desperately needs to improve his throwing but his physicality, ability to steal ball at the breakdown and presence in the loose will frighten teams.
Eben Etzebeth might not be your typical captain with his fiery attitude but he leads from the front admirably. Frustratingly Elton Jantjies still chokes in those vital game-changing moments. He struggles to maintain world-class form despite having all the skills needed to revive this South African backline.
There are problems that need fixing. The centre partnership of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel rarely penetrated the defensive line. Against the All Blacks the South African backline looked hopelessly unimaginative. Luckily they have found ways to build momentum through a powerful forward pack and a defence that forces penalties.
Like all good South African sides, this new resurgent group of forwards target the gainline. Whether it’s running off nine of straightforward one of runners they still keep defences around the fringes honest. This is where their strength lies. However, they will need to offer more in the wider channels going forward. Good building blocks to improve on.
There can be a convincing argument made that Australia have the most potent backline in world rugby. As per usual, their tight five crumble for large portions of game leaving them vulnerable. This Rugby Championship followed a similar pattern although improvements were made. Australia’s early form was alarming. That first-half against New Zealand in the first test was a shambles and Michael Cheika was disgusted with what he saw.
On too many occasions the Wallaby scrum capitulated. Such a high penalty count from set-piece at this level of rugby is criminal. Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu love rumbling in the loose but tend to shirk their scrummaging duty. The foundation needs to be set so their backline which crackles with electricity can spark into motion.
It seems harsh to lay all the blame at the front row’s doorstep. It makes life difficult but it’s not the be all and end all. Against South Africa and New Zealand, the Australian defence was far too passive for large parts of the game. Their inability to stop runners before the gain line invited big ball carriers to constantly make yards and allow the opposition to get quick ball. Perhaps their pack is slightly lightweight. Then again it could be owing to what Michael Cheika describes as a lack of test match intensity. They need an enforcer in the second row and one more giant in the pack that will intimidate the opposition.
Now, with the pack out of the way, let’s discuss this glittering backline scattered with gems. Israel Folau is a freak of nature. Pristine under the high ball, strides into the backline and scores tries for fun. Tevita Kuridrani adds structure and horsepower into the midfield. Kurtley Beale offers Bernard Foley support as a second creative playmaker and Will Genia has found his irresistible form of old. Throw into the mix, the frighteningly quick Marika Koroibete and utility back Reece Hodge and the backline reeks of tries. This Rugby Championship is further evidence that Australia are exciting with ball in hand but modern day rugby is settled up front.
Oh the woes of Argentina! The most worrying aspect of Argentina’s poor showing is that it seems like a huge regressive step. They also make the same mistakes every week. A strong first-half, littered with indiscipline before fading badly in the last 30 minutes. It happens week in week out. Are they worn out after a long season? Do they make needless pre-meditated substitutions? Or is the bench simply not strong enough?
Of course, the more glaring issue is the fact that so many excellent Argentinians are playing great rugby in Europe. Juan Figallo and Marcel Bosch at Saracens, Facundo Isa at Toulon, Juan Imhoff at Racing 92, the Socino brothers at Newcastle Falcons, the list goes on. The lack of competition for places means that Argentina is basically a glorified version of a struggling Jaguares club side. Surely they can afford to implement regulations similar to Australia, Wales or South Africa to allow some foreign-based players to play for the national side?
It’s hard to remember a game that Argentina did not concede at least one yellow card. Their indiscipline is shocking. Talented youngsters like second-row Tomás Lavanini need to learn quickly that whilst passion is an admirable trait it can also lead to moments of madness. You cannot win games when someone infringes at every other breakdown. Equally the front row dominance of old has vanished completely. They yearn for a Marcos Ayerza or Rodrigo Roncero type character to stabilise the creaking mess they are left with. Mario Ledesma has been rumoured to be taking over as head coach of Los Jaguares which should hopefully bring back some Argentinian snarl and passion up front.
There are a few bright sparks of note. They remain competitive in most games for at least 40 minutes. Argentina need to sustain pressure over the full 80 minutes if they are to succeed. Agustin Creevy is the best hooker in the world. Excellent arrows in the lineout, a brilliant fetcher and ferocious in the close exchanges. If only he could last to at least 70 minutes. Tomás Lezana is a star in the making. A back row with Facundo Isa and Pablo Matera would be world-class. They have quality players in the side but still require new direction and a different mentality to challenge the best.