Wallabies have knocked over Boks, now for the Pumas
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Wallabies coach Robbie Deans celebrates the win with his players (Image: AAP)
That there is some magic in having Argentina in The Rugby Championship became evident to your reporter on Saturday night, in the lift at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium.
As I waited with my wife and a couple who have been friends for years, two Argentinian men entered.
One was tall and burly (with the build of a Pumas lock) and smartly dressed in a suit and a scarf in the Argentinian colours of blue and white.
The other was elegant, wiry, and also complementing his suit with the Argentinian colours.
The elegant man pressed an Argentinian flag onto my friend, smiling and chatting while he did so. He told us the burly man was the Argentinian ambassador and he had played rugby.
“This man,” I offered, pointing to my friend, “is no Graham Henry. He is Chris Laidlaw, one of the All Blacks’ greatest halfbacks.”
With that the elegant one embraced Chris. “Delighted to meet you, Chris. My name is Hugo Porta.”
So as the lift opened up for us on the top floor of the stadium, two of the finest halves in the history of rugby, who had never before met, were still in an embrace as they made their way to their respective boxes, promising to catch up in Argentina next year.
The Tri Nations was becoming slightly stale with Australia, South Africa and New Zealand playing each other three times in one season. The Pumas have added an extra dimension to the tournament, the South American experience.
And there is a better balance in the matches with each team playing each other at home and away.
The Pumas also bring a passion and intensity to their rugby that cannot be matched by the other teams, or rather the players, in the other traditional sides.
The Pumas supporters, too; there were a hundred or so of them at Westpac Stadium near the 22 down the gale end of the ground. They waved their flags, blew their horns and generally made enough noise to challenge the 34,000 New Zealanders at the ground.
Before I get too enthusiastic about the Pumas and their impact on The Rugby Championship, I need to make a couple of qualifications about their play. They have to get the cynicism and go-slow aspects of their play out of their game.
They took an eternity to go into their lineouts. They played offside, or near enough to it, for most of the match. And they made a habit of sending a player down after virtually every play.
The effect of this was to slow down play to such an extent, especially in the first half, that there was no tempo or flow to the match.
These tactics, along with some sensational tackling and the virtual impossibility of passing accurately with winds gusting over 150km, meant that the Rolls Royce game of the All Blacks was reduced to that of a tank smashing through rough territory.
The All Blacks made 133 carries with the ball. They made 470m with these carries, with McCaw (still the finest loose forward in the modern game) carrying for 133m in 14 carries, the most of any player on the ground. Three All Black backs (Conrad Smith 58 metres, Israel Dagg 58, and Julian Savea 56) made the running in the backs.
The Pumas made 43 carries for 177m. The most ground gained by a Puma was by Juan Martin Fernandez with six carries for 43m.
Judging by these figures, the Pumas would have been lucky to get out of the match on a normal night with fewer than 40 points scored against them. The difficulty with making a suggestion like this is that their defence was superb. Some of their hits were massive.
Ask Luke Romano about the dumping he received when charging towards the Pumas try line from a 5m penalty tap. Romano didn’t just go back in the tackle, he rocketed back like an Exocet.
Towards the end of the match, the All Blacks started to get outside the Pumas defence. This is the area one would think that the Wallabies will try to exploit with Quade Cooper’s passing game at Brisbane on Saturday night.
The Wallabies have been having a hard time from their supporters recently. And, judging from some of the comments on Sunday, there is still not a great deal of satisfaction taken from the exciting and (almost literally) hard-fought victory over a desperate Springboks side.
There was a time, essentially before Robbie Deans came to the Wallabies as a coach, when the side rarely defeated the Springboks. Certainly in the history of the two teams, the Springboks were the dominant side until the 1990s.
Even Rod Macqueen’s Wallaby champions struggled against the Springboks. But now the Wallabies have won something like six out of the last seven Tests.
The victory at Perth has entrenched the Wallabies as the number two side in the world. The doomsayers need to remember this.
And the sweetest part of the victory was that the Wallabies came back from being down 13-6 at half-time. The Springboks made the most of their chances on the infrequent times they got into Wallaby territory. The Wallabies managed to stuff things up when they got into attacking positions.
In international rugby, it is virtually a sure thing that the side that leads at half-time will win the match. The Wallabies, though, turned that history on its head with a tremendous second half effort.
My player of the match was Michael Hooper, whose go-forward drives and pace with his break gave the Wallabies the momentum to crash into the Springbok 22 several times in a thrilling second half.
I’ve made this point before, but when David Pocock comes back he should be played at number 6 or number 8. This would allow Hooper to stay in the side, as he must, to give the speed to the ball a balanced back row trio needs.
Just as Greg Clarke was bemoaning the fact (correctly) that the Wallabies had found it hard to score tries this season, with just six in the previous six Tests, Ben Alexander flashed down the far side-line like a runaway truck downhill. He crashed over the try line for the try that has saved the season for the Wallabies, and possibly for coach Deans.
Talking about Alexander, it was good to see the Wallaby scrum contesting legitimately and successfully and winning penalties by tough and skilful scrumming. They will need to keep this up against the Pumas who have a solid and generally strong scrum, although the All Blacks did fracture them occasionally.
It was not good to see, however, the antics of Nathan Sharpe, who managed to give away a penalty on a number of occasions when the Wallabies had momentum and were on the attack.
I wrote down in my notebook that his behaviour was a sort of ‘faux mongrel’ that terrified only his own coaching bench.
He did manage to get the impressive Springboks young lock Eben Etzebeth to give him the softest of Liverpool kisses. But this was a poor reward for Sharpe for all the penalties he gave away himself with his antagonistic play.
There is nothing like a win against a strong opponent to lift the spirits of an embattled side, as the Wallabies were. I expect them to play with more speed and ball-running at Brisbane on the magnificent turf there and to be too fast around the field for the Pumas.
The Pumas will play with passion and the spirit reflected by Hugo Porta’s enthusiasm for his nation’s side. But, somehow, you have the feeling that this spirit and intensity in support of the jersey will be far more effective in Argentina.
At the Gold Coast, the home fans finally have the chance to support a Wallaby side (minus yet another captain in Will Genia, unfortunately) that is coming into the sort of form everyone has been hoping for for most of this current season.
As the old adage has it, better late than never!
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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