The Wrap: Rugby Championship ends with a bang

Geoff Parkes Columnist

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    It is the modern way that in big matches, across all codes, the winning team rushes to embrace each other at match end, to share in the spoils of victory, leaving the handshakes and acknowledgement of the opposition to later.

    But when referee Jerome Garces blew time on this Cape Town epic, the All Blacks stood their ground, through a combination of exhaustion and respect, and shared the moment with their foe.

    Here was Test rugby laid bare. Gladiatorial, imperfect and beautiful.

    To a person, rugby people around the world must have felt equal measures relief and delight that here was South Africa reclassified to the heavyweight division after their featherweight display in Albany. This was ‘old school’ All Blacks versus Springboks rugby, something the international game badly wants and needs.

    After two recent draws with Australia felt like missed opportunities, the Springboks must have felt that a draw here would have been fair reward, although they will know that the deciding moment – Damian de Allende’s foolish late charge on Lima Sopoaga – was a self-inflicted wound.

    No matter that de Allende’s red card was incomprehensible (no contact to Sopoga’s head was made), his action was dumb and penalisable, and the goal that resulted cost them the match.

    The big Springbok pack ran with purpose, smashing through and over tacklers and competing hard at the breakdown. But it didn’t stop there, a thrilling, early All Blacks counter attack, one that would have resulted in a try in Albany, was shut down when defenders worked back in numbers to deny Aaron Smith.

    It took thirty minutes to break the deadlock, with a try as ugly as the game was beautiful; Ryan Crotty ruled to have forced the ball with what TMO Rowan Kitt described as “his waist.”

    Even after Rieko Ioane’s runaway in the second half, the Springboks kept coming back; Handre Pollard a telling injection, opening up a try for Jean-Luc du Preez. And again at the end, a Malcolm Marx try in response to the Sopoaga penalty and a slashing Damien McKenzie run and score.

    Courtnall Skosan South Africa Rugby Union Springboks 2017

    (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

    Doubters wondering when McKenzie was going to show that he is fully up to Test level got their answer. Here were strong signals in this match of increasing maturity smoothing away some of the rough edges, without compromising any of McKenzie’s pace or talent.

    The other star turns were in the low numbers, wearing green. Steven Kitshoff couldn’t hide on a rugby pitch even if he wanted to and, along with hooker Malcolm Marx, put in a massive shift. 77 minutes for a front rower – plus ten minutes overtime at the end of the first half – is unheard of these days.

    Marx went one better, seeing out the whole match, and credit to coach Allister Coetzee for recognising that when a player with a point to prove is scoring tries, running the ball up hard and dominating the breakdown contest, it is far better to throw out any pre-ordained substitute plan and just let the man get on with business.

    Amazingly, Marx didn’t even win ‘best turnover of the match’. Have another look at Matt Todd, in the 61st minute, swoop in, nab the ball clean as a whistle, and kick-start another New Zealand attack, like a sharp-eyed seagull claiming a stray chip.

    Post-match, Keiran Read laughed off the bizarre ending to the first half as a clash of egos, both sides refusing to blink and end proceedings. Coach Steve Hansen was less amused – having already been forced to his bench twice, the extra ten minutes only served to fatigue his players and foul up his substitute strategy.

    It is one of those wonderful anomalies that sport throws up that will ensure that the All Blacks, and their young players in particular, take far more benefit from squeezing a one point win in this match, than from their eight-try romp in Albany – the spoils of success are so much sweeter when that success is earned the hard way.

    South Africa too will take enormous pride and self-belief from this performance. Their challenge of course is to bottle that, and ensure that this performance level is their new norm, not just one dragged out for special, backs-to-the-wall occasions.

    The Australia versus Argentine match was always going to struggle to measure up in quality and intensity, nevertheless a worthy encounter ensued, before the Wallabies once again finished too strongly for the Pumas, taking the match 37-20.

    The first half was full of thrust and counter thrust. Marike Koroibete stumbling for the line but keeping his feet to score, Matias Alemanno crashing through Scott Sio and Reece Hodge to plant the ball against the goalpost, Will Genia finding Hodge with no defender within 20 metres of him – and the Pumas denied a late try due to a little fumble by Agustin Creevy 50 metres upfield.

    Marika Koroibete Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    The Pumas opened the Wallabies up a few times and, with more clinical finishing, could have taken a handy lead into the break, but too many times the ball carrier ran into contact instead of finding teammates who were running in support.

    The game was still in the balance in the third quarter, after the Wallabies defence got caught out drifting across on Santiago Gonzales Iglasias – Koroibete relying on Rob Simmons to mop up inside him, not realising that Simmons was gassed after a massive scrum earlier in the same movement.

    The final quarter has often proven Argentina’s nemesis and so it was again, when the Wallabies conjured a nice set-piece play for Genia’s try, and Marcos Kremer found the naughty chair after a lifting tackle, before Hodge galloped away to complete the scoring.

    The Pumas will be disappointed at the scoreline, and their position rooted to the bottom of the ladder, but this was a better performance from them. They were more threatening in attack and more disciplined in defence, with danger-man Israel Folau not only well contained, but now having gone two consecutive matches without pulling an opponent’s hair.

    Flanker Jack Dempsey worked hard right from the get-go, in what was by far his best game as a Wallaby. 16 carries and eight tackles topped both the Wallabies attacking and defensive stats list. Ditto Hodge, whose double was a fine reward for his best Test match.

    Considering where the Wallabies were after 50 minutes in Sydney, this result (and second place in the Rugby Championship) represents encouraging improvement and fair reward for effort. It also provides a steadily strengthening platform – let’s say a solid camp one above base camp – from which to launch a realistic attempt on the summit in Brisbane in two weeks’ time.

    That upcoming Test-match might mean nothing in terms of silverware, but given the pummeling the All Blacks just received in Cape Town, represents a great opportunity for the Wallabies to re-measure, and perhaps nab one of their periodic victories.

    Despite the All Blacks once again securing the title early, this has been a strong version of the Rugby Championship, and there is a sense that there is plenty of fan appetite for more in Brisbane.

    Israel Folau Australia Rugby Union Wallabies 2017

    (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

    Frankston Oval yesterday was yet also a massive step down from Newlands, but the NRC match between the Melbourne Rising and the Canberra Vikings illustrated much of what is right and wrong about the NRC.

    The Vikings have the strongest relationship to a Super Rugby franchise, with a number of the side being Brumbies regulars. The way the team played, their style and the manner in which they were very well organised, all smacked of the Brumbies; factors which will serve the franchise well next season and beyond as more promising young players are inducted into the Brumbies way of doing things.

    All of which highlights the piece that the ARU hasn’t got right with the NRC. A similar situation applied with the Perth Spirit feeding into the Western Force but… ok, let’s not go there today. And, once the Rebels get a full year under their belt without such disruption, and solidify their playing list, it will properly apply to them as well.

    But with two NRC sides each in Queensland and New South Wales, there isn’t the same clarity or clean vertical integration that allows fans to more logically and easily follow their favourite players from club rugby through to the big time.

    The result is that for the casual fan, or potentially interested clubman, this makes the NRC much harder to engage with. It is too hard for fans to inherently know who they should be rooting for, and to develop tribalism.

    Fiji Drua vs Melbourne Rising

    (Image: Kevin Juggins)

    It might be a crude measure but it emphasises the point – has there ever been a fight in the NRC?

    New Zealand of course has a set up where multiple provinces feed into five Super Rugby franchises, but the difference is that these are long established, historical provinces – in some cases over 130 years – not entirely new, semi-professional constructs. Everybody instinctively knows where they stand.

    Of course nobody can build 130 plus years of history in five minutes, but for the NRC to take the next step forward, along with the ARU finding some money to market it properly, it needs to cement a Vikings/Brumbies type of pathway across all of the competition.

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy, was released in December 2017 to critical acclaim. For details on the book visit Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.