The Rugby Championship looks New Zealand’s to lose from here, as the abbreviated tournament wraps up this weekend at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
And from all of our teams – and some more than others, obviously – there’s been some great rugby, some not so great rugby, and some rugby that we’re really trying to erase from our memories, lest it occupy space best reserved for useless information like RWC jersey history.
But it all warrants discussing, no matter which of these categories it falls into.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s not much time left to resolve issues and/or apply a bit more polish to what is working.
In hindsight, could we maybe go back in time and shorten the domestic seasons instead? Another couple of warm-up matches slotted into the next few weeks could come in very handy.
New Zealand has made a very promising start to the season and there are several stand out points one could highlight but for mine the most pleasing has been the set piece.
Outside of one or two scrums against the Springboks it has been more than solid and the lineout has particularly looked well oiled, on and off ball.
A team will not get far in a World Cup without a quality set piece and the All Blacks look well-tuned in this area and a clear stand out.
Normally “standout” implies something positive, but with the Wallabies dropping both matches there are slim pickings on that front.
What stands out is just how unready the Wallabies are; their tactics a bit of this and a bit of that, defensively disconnected, discipline as poor as it ever was, and players from 1-15 yet to lock down starting roles.
Those elements will improve, as they must, and it needs to start with gaining parity in the possession count.
What stands out for the All Blacks is the complete opposite.
There is clarity around the game plan, and discipline in its execution. Players seem comfortable in their roles, demonstrably playing for the team.
Perhaps the speed with which the All Blacks got to that point from the jumble they were through much of last year, represents a beacon of hope for the Wallabies.
The Springbok scrum looks as solid as ever, and has for all 160 minutes.
Despite not overwhelming a stout All Black pack, there were three clearly dominant pushes. In Pretoria, the tale was even clearer.
Bok rugby thrives off the set piece but the scrum in particular is a real boost to the psyche. In knockout matches, a scrum yielding easy exits and cheap entries is green and golden.
Improvements and character.
Los Pumas have shown an improvement since the first match against the All Blacks, especially in the set piece where the scrum and line look more solid despite some weighty absences.
Against the Wallabies, the incorporation of the experienced Gomez Codella in the front row meant that Los Pumas, despite experimenting with Juan Martin Gonzales at No.8, had a better scrum. On the other hand, Gonzalez himself did an outstanding job stealing several balls and obtaining his own from the touchline launches.
To highlight, the team gave a sample of character in the face of the adversity of the result and was able to compete until the last minute with victory in mind.
That’s something I want to highlight, because it is not easy to respond positively when points are scored and you go on to lose the game when there are a few minutes left for the final siren. Something that the team had already shown against Scotland in Santiago del Estero last year, but this time playing at home which is quite different.
Yeah, I’ve made the question hard for myself again, haven’t I.
With so many elements of the Wallabies misfiring currently – and they don’t need to be rehashed here again – the standout has probably something like the ability of a few individuals to look very good in a very well-beaten side at Loftus, and a still-beaten side in Parramatta.
So, it would be the way Nick Frost combined so well with a couple of international Australian locks he’s not played a whole lot with, in Pretoria. The way Marika Koroibete has looked like he’s just been playing and training with everyone on the Wallabies squad for the last six or eight months, despite the fact he’s not been playing and training with any of them.
I’m not sure I’d have started Carter Gordon in the first Bledisloe Test of the year, but he has certainly done enough to earn a start before the Rugby World Cup. He’s done everything asked of him over the first two games so a start this weekend wouldn’t be completely undeserved, just a touch risky. But maybe that’s good?
And it’s definitely the way Mark Nawaqanitawase came in on the right wing and just killed all debate around the position in one game (and for some, in one 95-metre run). His performance vaulted him to the head of the queue and knocked others well out of contention.
At the risk of harping on about it, I still do not believe New Zealand has got their bench right in terms of personnel, or tactically for that matter.
I would prefer to see some changes in terms of the replacement props, loose forward and utility back, and I am no fan of the tactic of putting up contestable ball within your own half.
Yes, it worked a treat against South Africa but I am hopeful to see less of it as the season wears on.
Some of the opposition to come are more than capable of taking advantage of gifted territory and a more conservative approach would, I think, serve them better.
The Wallabies clear work-on is around selection. Eddie Jones said it himself last weekend; he has to determine who his best players are.
With The Rugby Championship gone, and the Bledisloe Cup looking like a massive stretch at this stage, Jones continuing to ring selection changes is all about him striving to figure out who can do a job for Australia in France.
The All Blacks will feel they can do better defensively.
Run down a couple of times last year, there has been no capitulation this time around, yet there was still some sense of fragility in both opening matches with tries too easily conceded in the second half.
That’s partly something for the bench players to address, but it also speaks to the need for the team to be more ruthless and not loosen up at any stage.
The first minutes of both Tests so far were horrible.
The Boks will want to put their boots on the necks of the Pumas and not let them up.
This will be crucial in the pool match versus Ireland; practice starts now.
At this point we all know that it is almost impossible to win without a good set piece.
The Pumas have improved the scrum and lineouts but they must continue to improve that aspect much more.
A fundamental point is the maul that Los Pumas could not handle both in attack and defence in the light of what was exposed in the first two games. This is something Los Pumas will be tested against the mighty Springboks who excel in that regard.
Beyond the result of the match, the players and coaches will know how far from the ideal and which are the situations to put more emphasis on in training.
This is no longer the first match of the Championship, but the third where the improvements must begin to be noticed since the World Cup is already a few days away and with little time to correct the weaknesses.
It is very good that Los Pumas face the physical rigour of the South African players, so that they adapt to the level they should have to be competitive in the World Cup.
Defence and discipline have been big-ticket discussions in the last week or so, and I had a crack at it myself on Tuesday – and thanks to all of you for carrying the discussion on Tuesday in my absence.
But I don’t want to leave the kick-chase out of this equation, either.
We’ve all watched and played enough rugby to know that a really good kick-chase can be the difference between an easy turnover and a chance to regain possession upfield via the contest, and unfortunately it’s long been a deficiency of the Wallabies.
I expect Australia will kick a lot more against New Zealand than they did against Argentina, but they will have to chase kicks better that they have all TRC, or they might as well just place the ball on the ground from where they were going to kick and let the All Blacks attack from there.
It just has to be a non-negotiable this weekend and next. If there’s one team the Wallabies simply cannot afford a poor kick-chase against, it’s New Zealand.
And more’s the point, they know this.
What has been the standout element of your team in The Rugby Championship so far??
And what do they desperately need to work on this weekend and next?