With one round to go in the Rugby Championship, it’s a safe bet that some results and performances have surprised most people.
So, where does each team stand with one round to go, and what should they be looking to work on with one round left?
It is probably not possible for anyone to have appreciated what this team have done to contribute to the game this year. They have spent significant time away from home and continue to show up with a game and competitive attitude.
They have the players and the talent, but for whatever reason it is not gelling on the field. They displayed glimpses, particularly in latter games, both on attack and defence.
Time together as a team should bring further fluency and understanding. With one round to go, they have the opportunity to work on their discipline and patience with and without the ball, and continue blooding new players.
They will be disappointed that their efforts have not brought ladder results, especially after their showing last year. But given the year they have had, they can be proud of their efforts – perhaps more so than any other side.
This has been an unexpectedly impressive tournament from Australia’s perspective. After two resounding defeats to the All Blacks, they have three wins on the trot, including a systematic dismantling of world champions South Africa in their second meeting.
They are displaying physicality in the forwards and their backs are playing superbly with front-foot ball. It appears all is going well for the Wallabies. However, there are cracks in the beautiful facade.
Wins against South Africa and a victory over Argentina need to be weighed up against an unconvincing series win over a second-string France and wallopings from the All Blacks.
Despite losing heavily, Argentina showed glimpses of how to frustrate Australia: slow their ball at the rucks. Without quick ball, Australia struggled to find the holes they did against South Africa. The All Blacks used a similar approach with success. What is the Wallabies’ back-up against a team that outmuscles them at the breakdown?
There is also a question mark over their depth. While it is clear the Wallabies’ match-day 23 is world-class, what happens when inevitable injuries happen? Who performs the role of Samu Kerevi or Nic White?
It is imperative the Wallabies begin to develop depth through their back line in order to build on their good Rugby Championship.
You could almost hear the executioner grinding his axe across the ditch prior to the start of the tournament, a blade with Ian Foster’s name on it. Anything less than victory would have been insufficient. And they delivered in spades.
This is not the All Blacks of the first part of last decade, but they did enough to win all matches to date. What is concerning for them is the amount of points left on the park.
The comment was made after their Test against the Springboks that on a different day, their error rate would have seen them put away far more points.
The issue is those same errors in handling and turnovers have been a theme of every match they have played. Against the All Blacks and Argentina it caused no concerns, but they very nearly came unstuck by it against South Africa. One dropped pass is all it takes to lose a World Cup.
There are also questions about the balance of their back row, as well as other combinations. Travel restrictions have played their part, but combinations have chopped and changed with too much regularity to allow players to settle into a rhythm.
It goes to show that arguably one of their best players against South Africa, Ethan Blackadder, was not a guaranteed starter. Settling on first-choice combinations is essential.
What a funny year for South Africa. After a hard-fought series win over the Lions, they have disappointed in their showing in the Rugby Championship. Two losses were slim and on different days the result may have been different, but they have now lost three in a row.
I do not buy the story that this is the death of the Boks and rugby. They were found out in the narrow channels against Australia, but played with discipline and spirit against New Zealand.
Their zeal and dogged determination was the principle difference under their control between those matches. Importantly, it showed that when executed well, their traditional game plan is still capable of taking it to the world’s best.
New Zealand’s errors came about in part because of the pressure South Africa’s accurate kicking, chasing, and smothering defence created.
Where South Africa need to improve is their ability to think on their feet. New Zealand demonstrate that when the game breaks down, vision can turn chaos into points. On countless occasions they turned a bunfight into a breakout.
In contrast, while South Africa force turnovers ad nauseam, they are caught with the ball like deer in headlights. For a team made up of players who have won everything there is to win at club and national level, their inability to hit the ball up, recycle, and simply play through the hands to get over the advantage line after a turnover is not good enough.
No team emerges from this Championship as a complete entity, void of any rough edges. The key with one round to go and into the spring tour is keeping the positives, and adjusting the negatives as much as possible.
What did you notice about your team?