Well, wasn’t Week 2 the proverbial cat among the pigeons for the Rugby Championship.
“The Rugby Championship is not our main priority”, as Steve Hansen offered after the All Blacks’ draw with South Africa in Wellington sounded very convenient after the result, and the disappointment in not winning was evident.
That’s not to say there’s not an element of truth in his comment. But would Michael Cheika have got away with saying that had the Wallabies lost to Argentina in Brisbane? Would Mario Ledesma? I’m not so sure they would.
But regardless, it does set up next week’s TRC finale very nicely. Though the Springboks are in the box seat with their one-point lead atop the table, Australia could still take the title with a win in Bledisloe in Perth next Saturday. So could New Zealand, obviously.
And though tipping equally hasn’t been our priority since the international season began, four of us with a share of the lead going into the last round will almost certainly change that next week!
LAST WEEK: Brett 1, everyone else zip, nil, nada. Just take a moment to let that sink in…
OVERALL: Digger, Harry, Geoff, Brett 2; Nobes 1
While The Rugby Championship has the feet up, I asked this question of the guys:
QUESTION: With two TRC games under their belt, how do you now assess or re-assess the Rugby World Cup prospects of your respective teams?
It is an interesting question as I am unsure how we should measure it.
On face value, the All Blacks have stuttered through their opening games, seemingly having never played with one another before. A lack of timing and cohesion does present worrying signs while it seems the top line up has yet to be decided upon, and of course, Brodie Retallick’s injury is a huge cause of concern.
A number of senior players seem to be out of touch and we all look and wonder what exactly are these new tactics that we hear are being implemented and yet to see, well, work.
On the other side of the coin, this is a road travelled upon before in previous World Cup years; average performances and question marks over star players and the teams form leading up to the competition.
It all seems quite familiar.
It’s not like Steve Hansen hasn’t been there and done that, so I still have faith that the All Blacks are in reasonable shape and capable of winning another World Cup.
But I certainly hope we start to see more continuity in selection and some strong performances in the last three games otherwise the doubt will remain. As we know, this is shaping up as perhaps the most competitive edition to date with several sides looking capable of lifting old William.
South Africa won’t be many British or Kiwi bookies’ favourite to win the World Cup, but then again, the Springboks won’t be anyone’s favourite to play against.
Hard up front, but skilled, with Pieter-Steph du Toit exemplifying the smart, skilled, fit modern Bok forward, Rassie Erasmus won’t field a team that gives up easily.
During this decade, the Boks seemed to lack a finishing instinct against their old foe: gamely collaborating in classic duels in 2013, 2015, and 2017 which ended in cruel losses, the Saffas playing the noble savage losers to the better, smarter 80-minute men.
Lately, especially in the Cake Tin, the final moment has been owned by young Bok backs, who don’t have the stain of bravely losing over and over.
So, after two RC matches, the Boks look happier, deeper, more ruthless, clinical, fit, and 80-minute-ish. Props aplenty, loads of locks, and choices for loosies. Handré Pollard looks like he is ready to win the Cup.
Faf de Klerk has a real understudy. On the other hand, our lineout throwing is rubbish, we still haven’t worked out the outside centre-wing jam timing, our starting fullback is giving Erasmus the willies, and our no 12 might be Fat-Fit Frans.
I would make the Boks 5-1; up from 8-1.
Two Test matches in and what are we able to say about the World Cup chances of the Wallabies and All Blacks that we didn’t know a fortnight ago?
Breaking it down, the Wallabies need to survive their pool then, just like everyone else, worry about rolling the dice week by week, from there. Which, pure and simple, means beating Fiji in Sapporo.
Two factors that will go a long way to ensuring that are a dominant scrum and consistent structure and execution on defence. Based on what we’ve seen so far, there is reason for optimism.
As for the Wallabies advancing beyond the quarter-finals? It’s too early to feel confident about that. A very difficult fortnight lies ahead, and how the Wallabies handle this will determine where their realistic World Cup expectations settle.
If 2011 and 2015 are any benchmark, the All Blacks are probably right on track, even if fans would feel happier seeing more fluidity and try-scoring action. Their defence looks to be as sound as ever, which is clearly critical in a World Cup year. While they’ve had a dry couple of weeks, they retain the greatest scoring power of any of the main contenders.
Importantly, Brodie Retallick looks as if he’ll be back on deck well before the quarter-finals – which for the All Blacks, irrespective of the opening pool clash against South Africa, is when their World Cup really starts.
In short, I’m still on the All Blacks bus.
The Pumas in my opinion are not performing as expected and reinforcements from Europe don’t seem to have assimilated into the team well yet.
The biggest problem is still the scrum that shows no signs of improvement, and only in the last game they were milked five penalties off that set piece. The arrival of Juan Figallo seems to be positive but that of Ramiro Herrera not so much, since he was not well in that formation and he is also a very slow player for the rugby of the southern hemisphere.
It might be wise to take one of the young ones and give time on the field, Santiago Medrano seems to have a good future as a prop, the scrum will still weak but the team gains in mobility and defence.
The line that had been a safe weapon weakens with the exit of Ortega Desio and the entrance of Facundo Isa. A very good ball carrier is won but taxes in the only set piece that Los Pumas feels safe. A whole dilemma to solve since both Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer have been playing at a great level and therefore neither of them would seem likely to leave their place for the Toulon player.
Something even more alarming is the low level Nicolas Sanchez has shown in the two games he has played so far.
He was seen slow, hurried, and impressed with the ball in hand or using the foot. It remains to prove with Benjamin Urdapilleta who sustained an injury and would just be in a position to play a few minutes against the Springboks but of the possibilities for the position the Castres player was never in the UAR system, and therefore its adaptation should be more difficult.
As for the game itself, it highlights the amount of missed tackles and the difficulties to gain the brake line.
Many issues to solve in a short period of time. The defeats have not been bulky and that helps. If they achieve a quality leap in the game in Salta beyond the result, I think that there are still hopes of being competitive in the World Cup.
One win does not a swallow make, or something and something, but I don’t mind admitting that I am feeling a bit better about the Wallabies than I was a month ago.
The quality of the defence in the win over Argentina, the set piece dominance and particularly the scrum, suggests to me the Wallabies are building a decent foundation for themselves heading toward September and October.
That’s not for a second suggesting they’re even close to having enough in the arsenal to go all the way.
Australia still have plenty to work on even just for their next match, and the go-forward and breakdown success that they enjoyed against Argentina needs to be a bare minimum going forward. The go-forward got them over the gain line, but more importantly, it provided quick ball.
A lack of quick ball will hold most sides up, but the Wallabies seem more impacted by a lack of go-forward than most international teams.
What will be interesting is what kind of selection continuity we see leading into the Rugby World Cup. On the back of an ordinary forwards performance in Johannesburg, Michael Cheika made five changes to his backline.
Do the Wallabies selectors know what their First XV is yet? I’m intrigued to know what it is, because it feels like there are a lot of floating bubbles right now.
I agree with Geoff that the quarter-finals are a realistic target, but similarly, I’m more hopeful than confident at the moment of reaching the semis.
But I look forward to that changing between now and October 19.