It’s fair to say that both Rugby Championship matches over the weekend won’t be remembered when Roar readers in ten years’ time argue the toss about great moments in Rugby Championships history.
But for better or worse, I’d suggest that there are two coaches happy today, another happier than what he might have been straight after the match, one despondent, and another two cautiously optimistic, looking on from a distance.
Let’s start with the despondent one, Mario Ledesma, whose Pumas took a couple of steps backwards, in what can only be described as a underwhelming performance in Brisbane, losing 16-10 in a match they had reasonable expectations of winning.
Problems started up front, their much vaunted lineout well off the pace, with Julian Montoya getting a rare start at hooker.
It’s true that referee Ben O’Keeffe made little effort to maintain a gap in the lineout, but it’s not hard to imagine the experienced Agustin Creevy taking the pressure off his jumpers by refusing to throw until there was sufficient space provided.
Unfortunately for the visitors, their messy lineout was the least of their worries, with their scrum totally dominated on the night by an impressive Wallabies unit – pre and post the obligatory front-row replacements.
Herein lies the essence of Ledesma’s problem. For all of the Puma’s ball-handling issues on the night, and their failure to crack the Wallabies out wide, these are minor, rectifiable concerns when weighed against a deficient scrum.
All other things equal, the Pumas are a good side, quite capable of repeating their World Cup semi-final placing from 2015. But only with the proviso that over the next few weeks, Ledesma finds a way to put the anchors on a scrum that is too easily shunted into reverse.
As such, while they will still be wary, England’s Eddie Jones and France’s Jacques Brunel must have taken heart from what they saw, knowing that referee perception will already be working against the Pumas.
Their strategy for escaping the ‘pool of death’ will strongly revolve around domination at scrum and to take points and field position as a result.
Michael Cheika, never difficult to read, was justifiably happy with the result and with a lot of the Wallabies’ play, much of which addressed the failings of the week before.
Most notable was the manner in which the Wallabies set the tone for the match, building off their set-piece dominance, competing with more regularity and vigor at the breakdown, and shifting the point of the attack at the breakdown, stretching and stressing the Puma’s defence with regularity.
Central was Will Genia, keen to leave a stamp in his final Suncorp appearance, but also I expect, with a nod to Nic White’s strong match in Johannesburg.
A freshen up since the Rebels’ loss to the Chiefs in Super Rugby has allowed Genia to shake off his niggly knee, and it was a great sight for fans to once again see him haring to breakdowns and focusing on his passing game.
Genia’s service contributed to Christian Lealiifano enjoying a great night out – front-foot ball and an extra half-second in which to operate, the dream of every fly-half.
Also assisting was some impressive go forward from Isi Naisarani (who also added a couple of deft passing and handling touches to his game), and a totally committed performance from skipper Michael Hooper, whose second and third efforts in a number of plays, were a delight to watch.
Another improvement on last week was Hooper this time taking the points on offer from penalties – crucial in what turned out to be a low scoring match.
Judgment on the returned and reformed James O’Connor will have to wait for now – his ten-minute cameo consisting of nothing more than a few low fives, a high five and a mistimed attempt to go down on a bouncing ball.
With wins so hard to come by for the Wallabies in recent times, Cheika was justified in coming away happy, particularly in light of a far more composed and accurate defensive effort.
A more critical review however might point to only one try (to Reece Hodge after a sweeping, backline set-piece move) demonstrating an inability to put the Pumas away for the kill.
Indeed, Facundo Isa’s try from a lineout drive might have made for a very uncomfortable finish for the Wallabies had Ramiro Moyano not fumbled a pass to kill off a very promising counter-attack opportunity in the final minutes.
Prop replacements aside, Cheika got low value from his bench, and the Samu Kerevi/Tevita Kuridrani midfield combination remains a work-in-progress – Kuridrani applying ‘spray grip’ to his hands in the second half seemed like the ultimate in wishful thinking.
But hey, even the world’s happiest coach always needs a few work-ons.
That title belonged to a delighted Rassie Erasmus, in the 80th minute of the Wellington Test, after man-of-the-match Cheslin Kolbe, set free by a superb catch and pass by Willie Le Roux, placed a perfectly weighted kick onto the head of man-of-the-moment Herschel Jantjies, for the tying, 16-16 score.
A draw is a draw, but coming from behind, away from home, Erasmus was entitled to feel more like a winner than his counterpart Steve Hansen.
And as the sting went out of his side’s rushing defence in the second half, and the All Blacks finally found some continuity and ball control, Erasmus may have felt as if the match had slipped out of his grasp.
But as well as depth across almost all positions, there is also a fair sprinkling of class and steel – one thing we know for sure is that no side under Erasmus will ever leave New Zealand with a sorry 57-0 beating to show for themselves.
By that measure, Jantjies’ try came as no surprise, nor did the fact it came from a kick – the Springboks profiting all night from a clever kicking game that either placed the All Blacks defenders under extreme pressure, or else ended up with the ball in the hands of an advancing Springbok.
As Fox Rugby host Nick McArdle delightfully pointed out pre-match, the All Blacks’ pack contained “no nuffies”, although they did struggle to impose themselves on the match for all of the first half – missing Ardie Savea’s ability to scrap for possession and engage in hand to hand combat.
In truth this was a typical first-up performance from the All Blacks – technically their second outing for the year, but with so many changes to the starting side, as good as their first match.
Richie Mounga’s early kick charge-downs, simple handling and discipline errors, were all evidence of failing to adjust to the increased intensity and pace of, not only Test rugby, but Test rugby Springbok-style, with big bodies rushing up into their face at every opportunity.
Two days on, Hansen is likely to feel more pleased than he might have felt on Saturday night. He is not being glib when he says that the Rugby Championship is not his main objective this year – he said the same in 2011 and 2015 when he incurred losses at this stage of the year on the way to greater glory, and in that context, 16-16 is no great setback.
Hansen now also knows that his champion lock Brodie Retallick has neither a fracture or structural damage to his shoulder – as was feared at the time – and so can cautiously expect him to be back on deck during the World Cup.
He knows too that his side coped reasonably well with the Springbok onslaught, Sonny Bill Williams absorbing a lot of the pressure at inside centre, and if the Springboks determined the terms on which the game was played in the first half, it was the All Blacks who successfully shifted the match to their terms in the second.
Clearly the All Blacks know that they are in for a heck of a contest on the 21st September, in Yokohama. But for all of the Springbok’s qualities, one thing they will not do is fear them or their style of play.
World Cup years invariably see a subtle change in the style of play, with defences tending to dominate. Hansen will be happy with his, while at the same time, acknowledging the same of Erasmus.
Perhaps Hansen’s biggest issue between now and then will be to solve some of his selection dilemmas. More will be known this week after four players are cut from the current squad, and there is the likelihood of experimentation continuing in Perth next weekend.
With Ben Smith a half-step off top pace and relative inexperience in the outside back contenders, do not be surprised to see the Mo’unga/Barrett 10/15 combination persevered with – both are clearly among the best 15 players.
This Test match also highlighted two issues that I believe will come under increasing scrutiny from World Rugby.
The first scrum of the match took over two and a half minutes to complete. Understandably, referee Nic Berry was keen to see a scrum contest develop, and generously allowed both sides the opportunity to reset, but it serves the game poorly to have large chunks of time eaten out of it in this way.
The integrity of the scrum contest must be retained at all costs, otherwise the game will be on a slippery slope to becoming rugby league. And we must never return to the 1980’s when scrums became a raffle ticket to a life-changing spinal injury for front-rowers.
But in today’s entertainment hungry world, two and a half minutes for a scrum is around two minutes too many.
The concern for Retallick arose from a cleanout by Springbok lock RG Snyman. The incident sparked no concerns for any of the four match officials and, speaking after the match, Steve Hansen also waved it away as part of the game.
It is true that Snyman did nothing more that players from all teams do with regularity – smash into opponents who are standing over the ball, or in the vicinity of the ball – thus there is no reason to paint him as a particular villain.
But consider this. Law 15.6 requires players joining a ruck to do so from behind or alongside, but not in front of the hindmost player. Further, law 15.7 states that players joining a ruck must bind onto a teammate or opposition player, preceding or simultaneous with contact.
To cut to the chase, these laws (along with a requirement for the joining player not to become airborne) are to written to ensure that players do not launch themselves as ‘human missiles’ into prone, exposed, blindsided opponents.
In this instance Retallick was competing in the ruck, although not immediately on the ball, which was in the sight of halfback Jantjies and about to be cleared by him. Snyman entered the ruck in contravention of both 15.6 and 15.7, with the apparent intention of hurting Retallick.
As we know, rugby is a hard man’s game, and physicality is a huge part of what draws many of us to it. But with David Pocock and now Retallick – two of the world’s finest players – among many out of the game for extended periods due to being targeted in an illegal manner, a better balance needs to be found between retaining the physical aspects of the game, and player protection.
Watch the French Top 14 for example and you will see, match after match, players who are bigger and stronger than ever before – who have the g-force of their hits measured as a performance metric – target each other at the breakdown like oversized bowling balls careering down a ten-pin bowling alley.
It is an aspect of rugby that needs reigning in, and one that I believe that a safety conscious World Rugby will pay increasing heed to. In the meantime, a good place to start would be for referees and TMO’s to more rigidly apply the laws as they already stand – just as Paul Williams and Rowan Kitt did last week with respect to Taniela Tupou.