With two games down for each team, the Rugby Championship is beautifully poised with all four on a 1-1 win-loss record. Here’s how our team of the tournament is shaping up so far.
Like any proper rugby person, I’ve watched all 320-odd minutes of the tournament. To wrap and pod and react and tweet, I’ve pored over the insipid stats we have on offer.
Disclaimers: I will ignore all prior history. No reputational bonuses accrue. It’s for both Tests, so no one-Test wonders. It’s not an attack number competition. If Tom Wright beats three defenders to run into a blind alley to be snaffled, or Beauden Barrett completes a miracle offload that puts his mate in rugby jail, that’s not good rugby. This is a holistic exercise in team selection. But no attention will be paid to combinations, and nobody will be shifted (except South Africa and Argentina number flanks differently than the rest).
James Slipper was a bulwark for the Wallabies in Mendoza but lost it a bit in San Juan, where 7-cap, 4-try Thomas Gallo won hero status (but see caveats). Steven Kitshoff can’t seem to buy a starting jersey for South Africa. Ethan de Groot looks the goods. On balance, we will go with Kitshoff, part of the best scrum in the competition.
The Pumas’ one-two punch of Julian ‘Slipper Lite’ Montoya and Gus Creevy is top class. The All Blacks have found a good ‘un to usher in the post-Coles era. Dave Porecki was missed in the second Test. But Malcolm Marx put in one of the best single match displays since his last 10/10 rated show at Newlands in 2017, with five turnovers and more, and his early doors absence at Ellis Park (0-15) and huge presence in the comeback to 23-21 was monumental (two turnovers and big carries).
The Roar experts Harry Jones, Brett McKay and Jim Tucker break down the weekend’s two matches in our Instant Reaction podcast
Taniela Tupou has disappointed. The All Blacks have just been holding on. Los Pumas have not yet found their tighthead for the RWC. So, it’s 50-cap Frans ‘Buffels’ Malherbe, that hirsute colossus who has made 25 tackles in two Tests without a miss and has a familiar scrum penalty margin (3-1) built.
Sam Whitelock had a renaissance in Johannesburg. He was a throwback nuisance all over the park and sold the obstruction call convincingly (10-point swing). With Guido Petti resting his knee, the rugged Puma duo has been solid. Eben Etzebeth (top lineout winner) has played too much rugby in July and August, but is Mr. Consistency and ran an All Black wing down. Lood de Jager has been okay. Rory Arnold toiled manfully, but Tomas Lavanini is my selection. Carded even when he did nothing wrong, this big man is the comp’s second-leading tackler (22) with no misses and he cleans in a very conclusive manner. Scott Barrett is on the bench.
This is an interesting one. Young Juan Martin Gonzalez of Argentina cannot stop scoring long-range tries. But he is also the leading tackler (24) so far. Siya Kolisi has been a monster in the tackle and counter ruck. Sam Cane has stuck to it, no matter what was said. Kolisi and Cane (both 22 tackles) have sort of cancelled each other out in every way. Fraser McReight has learned Test rugby is different even from Australia A rugby. I’ll take the big athlete from Argentina.
If Pieter-Steph du Toit had finished his intercept with a try, the entire Ellis Park Test may have shifted around. It was so early on and so very outstanding. His work rate has returned to the highest levels. Marcos Kremer is a scary flank and you’d love him on your side; not the opposite. Shannon Frizell was a big improvement over Akira Ioane; as has been Jed Holloway over Rob Leota. On balance, I’ll take Frizell (as a rugby player, not a man) over PSDT because of Test 2 and how instrumental he was.
Jasper Wiese (19 good, hard carries) has been outplayed by 25-carry Ardie Savea, but that’s no insult. Was done by his coach by robbing him of the crucial first 30:00, but then gave the All Blacks three problems. Pablo Matera vs Savea will be box office. 22-carry 6 tackle-bust Rob Valetini has risen from the England series doldrums but needs to get to the level of Matera and Savea at ruck time. Savea was the key difference in Test 2: two steals when the Boks were about to score, and sort of looks the players’ captain. He’s my non-8 eight.
Aaron Smith can still give his backs that crucial half-second and half-metre more than any other nine. But Jaden Hendrickse has been a revelation; his Whitelock pick was how long-range tries were scored for a hundred years, but he has to act as well as Sam. Nic White has had a revolving flyhalf door. Wriggly Gonzalo Bertranou looks the business. We will reward consistency: big, smart Hendrickse.
Second Test Richie Mo’unga seems to have answered the unsolved riddle for Ian Foster (who will solve Foster’s puzzle?) and Handre Pollard has converted 29 points out of the 29 he has attempted, most of them quite difficult. He has made few errors and created two tries. But Santiago Carreras, the utility back from Gloucester, has been a revelation. On balance, given the way kicking goes, we will reward Pollard for just never missing so far.
David Havili was as good at Ellis Park as he was not in Mbombela. But he still missed three tackles. Damian de Allende was about a 7-8 in both on attack but fell off four tackles in Joburg where altitude hurts the sea level Boks. Jeronimo de la Fuente used a pulled hammy to dummy three Wallabies and score. Len Ikitau looks smooth. Havili takes it? Odd.
Rieko Ioane was outstanding in the second Test, but Lukhanyo Am was one of the best players on the pitch in both matches. He has made the most breaks, metres, and try assists. He is a jackler, too; and filled in at the wing with ease. Almost unplayable at the moment.
Marika Koroibete emerged as one of the few Wallabies from the San Juan massacre with credit. He is so strong on the ground and in the air and is totally switched on. Makazole Mapimpi on the left is also having a good run; his aerials are vastly better. Caleb Clarke keeps knocking out tacklers but misses too many himself. Juan Imhoff rolled back the years (but it was just one Test). Workhorse Koroibete is one wing; busy Mapimpi the other.
It’s not a Wallaby. Jordie Barrett bounced back, but Damian Willemse was better in both. However, the longest kick routine man in World Rugby, Emiliano Boffelli, has been a star. He can play wing or 15 but he takes this slot.
Team 1-15: Kitshoff (SA), Marx (SA), Malherbe (SA), Lavanini (ARG), Whitelock (NZ), Frizell (NZ), Gonzalez (ARG), Savea (NZ), Hendrickse (SA), Pollard (SA), Mapimpi (SA), Havili (NZ), Am (SA), Koroibete (AU), Boffelli (ARG).
Bench: Willemse (SA), Mo’unga (NZ), Smith (NZ), PSDT (SA), S Barrett (NZ), Slipper (AUZ), Gallo (ARG), Montoya (ARG).
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