The first weekend of The Rugby Championship is behind us, and what a first weekend of results it was. For any number of reasons, for that matter.
South Africa look to be taking on clinical qualities in this current vein of form, and you can only imagine the bookies have wound them in even further for tournament favouritism after their outstanding Mbombela Stadium win over New Zealand.
Australia, while not nearly as clinical in Mendoza, scrapped their way back into a game they then gained control of, finishing surprisingly strongly – given their first half – over the top of an Argentinean side that proved they will be anything but easy-beats in TRC 2022.
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But with one game now in the bag, the four coaching groups and the four sides will all be pondering the same question heading into Game 2 this weekend coming: do they need to recalibrate or reset anything, or is it full steam ahead?
It could be any of the above, it could be all of the above. But it would be fascinating to know how many of the four coaches were satisfied with their opening performance of the tournament.
Question 1: What needs to have been your team’s major focus this week and what did they get right last weekend?
The All Blacks got a few important things right last week. The lineout was more than functional and the tackling much improved from the Ireland series. But the failings were many and it’s a difficult task to identify just one particular focus point that would give them the biggest return in a week.
More than anything, the All Blacks need to find a way to spend more time in or near the Boks’ 22, and to transfer pressure from themselves to their opponent.
That starts with a kicking game that can be measured in metres gained, not feet and inches, which surely involves the injection of Richie Mo’unga at 10. The high ball too, must be neutered, with a bomb defuse rate nearer 80 per cent than 50 per cent.
The Wallabies got a lot right, particularly in the second half. They demonstrated intelligence and maturity about how they varied their play and – for the most part – kept their shape and composure. More of the same, please.
As for the don’ts, I expect there still to be a lot of focus around not conceding needless, wasteful penalties.
For a couple of weeks, South African rugby – coaches, players, public – had to handle the oddity of being favoured by even Kiwi oddsmakers and not implode under the pressure. It was the fourth time ever (all three prior times, the Springboks were those rare faves, and all four times now, have covered) in betting history (300-plus Tests).
It was obviously true. The All Blacks had No Packs. You cannot tour South Africa, even the “Low Veld” (still high) with a shallow and motley crew of unscary forwards. It does not end well.
But it’s one thing to know something. To own it, shout it loud, and be told it by everyone: that crown can be heavy.
Like Australia, the Boks have a reservoir of vestigial pain built up from decades of Blacklash.
It’s like when the Irish got rich in the early 2000s from the dot-com boom.
They had no experience in it. They only knew the lonely poetry of loss and famine and Joyce and despair and a hope of a future always out of reach.
What do you do when you reach a destination? How do you handle front runner experience? How do you avoid the hangover? That’s the hardest thing in sport.
So, this week is even harder. A 16-point win (whether it had ended 19-3 or 26-10, that appeared to be the true gap) is almost unbelievable in this rivalry. 1928 was the last time the All Blacks lost that badly to their old foe.
These Boks are ruthless. There’s a cup with Bill’s name and a Lion scalp in the trophy cabinet in Cape Town to prove it. But now it’s all about keeping the upper hand, building a gap, avenging last year in Australia, and retaining the cups. That’s tougher.
Are these lads one of the best Bok teams in history? We are about to see.
The first 60 minutes of Los Pumas were acceptable, although the Wallabies’ indiscipline helped the Argentine team a lot to get out of difficult positions, get good field advantage and manage the result by adding mostly by penalties.
It is clear that Santiago Carreras has a hard time leading the team and that the centres are not imposed neither in attack nor in defence.
Santiago Cordero went unnoticed and both Emiliano Bofelli and Juan Cruz Mallia had a very good performance.
Both the line and the scrum in the first half were very good, but they fell a lot with the changes midway through the second half, where at this level it is unacceptable to be converted three times through the line and maul.
The Pumas will have to correct the bench quality issue and play their game without looking at the result. The issue of defence is something that since the short era of Michael Cheika is an issue and the percentage of points awarded each time Los Pumas defend in their 22 metres is well above the average of the top 10.
Many issues to correct for a short week of training and without all the players available.
My suggestion in terms of names would be to try Tomás Albornoz at 10, Lucas Mensa and Matias Moroni in the centres. The three behind can be Carreras, Bofelli, and Mallia.
Right at this point in time, it feels like the Wallabies’ priority in Argentina has been to ensure there’s enough fit players. Players are dropping like flies.
That said, they did find their composure in the second half last weekend, to regain control of the game, take the lead and kick away. 24 points in the last 18 minutes shows they did a lot right.
But the first half remains a problem, and it’s not just been a 2022 problem.
Iain Payten of the Sydney Morning Herald joined The Roar rugby experts Brett McKay and Harry Jones from the Wallabies tour in Argentina for a deeper review of the win in Mendoza, the impact of Michael Hooper’s sudden withdrawal and a look ahead to the second game of the tour in San Juan.
Though it’s true the Wallabies are yet to lead at halftime in four Tests this season, you have to go all the way back to the Japan Test last year for the last time the Wallabies took surplus points into the sheds at the break. In their last seven Tests, the best they’ve managed is 6-all against England in Perth.
But this group has been able to start games well in recent times. That Japan match was the last of five straight in which they led after the first 40. And the common denominator in those five matches? They won them all.
They need to start well, because they’re just not very good when chasing games. The panic sets in, and the pressure that comes with it forces mistakes. If they start well though, they can go on with it.
But the Mendoza win was just the second time since the start of last season where they’ve won after trailing at halftime. They just have to be better from kick-off.
Where does one start when there are a lot of areas to address? Notably the breakdown and tactical kicking pop right out with ‘must fix yesterday’-type urgency.
But if only settling on one thing it would be all about their mindset and reversing. What has now become more than a trend and threatening to become a habit, the slow starts the All Blacks are currently suffering from.
They have found themselves well beaten out of the blocks in their last six outings against the top three sides in the world and a stronger start this weekend will be beneficial for their mentality to not be chasing the game so early. That confidence would hopefully then flow into the balance of their performance this weekend.
While the overall performance from last weekend was viewed mostly in the negative, putting the ‘Mr Positivity’ hat on, I did think the defence had improved markedly from the last Irish test with greater accuracy and connectivity, and the starting lineout functioned very well up against a quality Boks outfit.
Hopefully, some good foundations to build upon for the balance of the season.
Question 2: Of any of the other three sides, what was the one thing that surprised you most about their performance?
Anyone who was surprised with what the Springboks brought can’t have been watching much rugby since 2019.
There’ll be more of the same this weekend, which means the game goes down to what extent the All Blacks can impose themselves on the match, apply some pressure back, and affect the Boks’ execution.
Which leaves Argentina, and perhaps the surprise for me was how easily they folded at the lineout, to concede three maul tries in the second half. At Test level that’s at least one, probably two too many, to be conceding.
Compared to the rest of their game it’s a major deficiency, and it needs to be corrected this week or else they’re going to have to score a lot of points at the other end.
New Zealand keeps mystifying me with their disorganised high ball game; lack of well-placed shepherds to protect Will Jordan, Jordie Barrett, and Caleb Clarke; loss of 7 rucks and 17 turnovers; overlong kicks, and frantic passing.
In retrospect, the 2019 pool match they won against the Boks presaged this problem. The first 20 minutes was frantic.
Only two dropped balls by the Boks allowed tries, and then, nothing. Ireland wasn’t ready back then, but England was. Since then, it’s been a steady decline. Wholesale change is needed at the top.
There are players (Grace, Jacobsen, de Groot, Franks, Romano, emigres) who would harden them up. But this tame, lame group isn’t recognizable.
Backlash delayed? Or cancelled?
My biggest surprise was the inability of the All Blacks to create risky situations and breaks during the game against the Springboks.
It is clear that the Boks use a suffocating defence but the quality of the players that the All Blacks have should be able to create situations to buy time and be able to play.
Everything stems from the slowness with which the breakdown was handled without detracting from the defence and the work done by the men in green.
Those from the African continent based their game on defensive dominance and the very well-executed kicks by Handre Pollard, but the defence of those kicks by the back three was far from the level required in these matches.
The Springboks were incredible, everyone has reached that same conclusion by now.
But I think was surprised me most was just how clinical they were, how ruthless they were. They never gave the All Blacks a sniff; the All Blacks might have thought they had a sniff on occasion, but just has they were beginning to draw in air, the Boks arrived immediately to shove a finger up each Kiwi nostril.
When Malcolm Marx went off and the All Blacks thought the worst might be over, Handre Pollard potted a drop goal just to make sure things kept ticking.
When Shannon Frizell scored to provide what might have been a somewhat respectable score line, the canny old master, ‘Spiders’ le Roux was on the spot to clean up Frizell’s dropped ball and blow the score right back out.
South Africa were never going to lose the Wales series in July, but they used it to get game time into bodies and blow all the cobwebs out as a collective unit. They were never going to lose the series, but they took their sweet time to properly seal it.
There were no cobwebs by the time the embattled All Blacks arrived in Mbombela. Just clinical, unrelenting ruthlessness. It was wonderful to watch as a neutral, but left me hoping it doesn’t travel particularly well.
Cannot say I was surprised by anything per se but a few things I did find impressive were the accuracy of the Pumas counterattack, the brutal efficiency of the Springboks cleanout and the resilience of the Wallabies.
The Pumas took their counter-attack chances with style, the Springboks cleanouts were low, accurate and very impressive, delivering clean ball on a platter and the Wallabies are showing they have plenty of spirit in this squad.
They showed this down to 14 against England, and to chase the game all the way in Argentina was a huge credit to them and the squad being built, even more so considering the injury to Quade Cooper and the absence of Michael Hooper.
OVER TO YOU: What did your team need to be focused on this week, heading into Round 2?
And what surprised you about one of the other teams last weekend?
Rugby – The Roar