The Southern Hemisphere super-powers returned to action this week with the 2017 Rugby Championship kicking off in Sydney and Port Elizabeth respectively.
Here is the round-up from an exciting opening weekend….
Ruthless All Blacks put Wallabies to the sword in Sydney
Reigning champions New Zealand carried on from where they left off in 2016 with an effortless attacking display against a hapless Australian side.
With Steve Hansen’s side having been criticised for failing to take chances in the decisive 3rt test against the Lions, Kieran Read’s side showed a level of execution rarely seen in the Lions series, running in eight tries in a comprehensive 54-34 win over their Tasman rivals.
For Australia and coach Michael Cheika, things just go from bad to worse. Following an underwhelming summer series that saw victories over Fiji and Italy bookended by defeat to Scotland, the Wallabies started their Rugby Championship campaign with a pitiful display that could have been even worse if it not were for a late flurry of tries from the men in Green and Gold.
With the All Blacks arriving in Sydney in an unrelenting mood it wasn’t long before they turned pressure into points with blindside flanker Liam Squire benefitting from quick hands by Kieran Read and Rieko Ioane to run over in the corner just under ten minutes into the contest.
With the All Blacks playing at a feverish intensity throughout the first half, it didn’t take long for the floodgates to open. Having impressed throughout the Lions series, winger Rieko Ioane carried on from where he left off showing impressive footwork to stay in-field and dive in at the corner for New Zealand’s second before quickly adding a third by sprinting away from the Wallabies defence following an interception by team-mate Ryan Crotty.
With the likes of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock punching holes in the Australia defence and Beauden Barrett pulling the strings effortlessly at ten, the first half soon became an exhibition of attacking rugby from the All Blacks. Phase after phase of quick ball knocked the stuffing out of their hosts with centre partners Ryan Crotty (2) and Sonny Bill Williams getting on the score-sheet before the half-time whistle.
40-6 up at half-time and averaging a point a minute, New Zealand once again came firing out of the blocks after the break with the impressive Damian McKenzie going over for a maiden test try, quickly followed by another score from winger Ben Smith as the Australia defence continued to wilt under the constant pressure of All Blacks attack.
Facing the embarrassment of a crushing defeat on home soil, the Wallabies rallied in the final half-hour with Curtis Rona, Tevita Kuridrani, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau crossing the whitewash as New Zealand became complacent in defence, although despite showing some sort of spirit towards the end it was still not enough to avoid a heavy defeat.
Dazzling in attack throughout, Beauden Barrett looked back to his best following some shaky moments against the Lions, whilst youngsters Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane provided some great running rugby and real attacking thrust from deep. With their fist-choice centre partnership of Crotty and Williams back in action, the midfield duo brought the composure and accuracy that had been missing in their absence against the Lions, whilst Ben Smith’s return from injury added experience to a back three containing McKenzie and Ioane.
In contrast the Wallabies looked far from a side that had been together for a month in preparation for this campaign. A side lacking any sort of organisation in defence, captain Michael Hooper would have also been dismayed by the errors in attack where discipline and handling errors were common issues throughout the match for the hosts. One positive for Australia would have been the return of Kurtley Beale, who in his fist game back in Green and Gold since the 2015 World Cup final showed some impressive touches in attack, scored a try and generally contributed to most of the hosts’ best phases of play. If Australia are to trouble New Zealand in the rematch in Dunedin, they will need the likes of Beale, Bernard Foley and Israel Folau to show the same attacking intent they did in the second half in Sydney from the start of the match, although with so many things to work on in defence and attack it may prove an insurmountable task.
Springboks continue renaissance with comfortable win over Pumas
Following a dismal 2016 season, South Africa are gradually rebuilding under coach Allister Coetzee and having defeated France in two tests in the summer continued their winning start to 2017 with a 37-15 win over Argentina.
A try apiece from wingers Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule were followed up by scores from forwards Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, with Elton Jantjies adding 17 points from the kicking tee in a well-polished performance from the Lions fly-half.
With South Africa dominating proceedings throughout, Argentina were reliant on their counter-attacking game to keep them in touch on the scoreboard with tries from Martin Landajo and Emiliano Boffelli to go with five points from the boot of Nicolas Sanchez.
Despite a bright start from the hosts in Port Elizabeth, the Springboks struggled to break down a resilient Argentinian defence although their constant pressure was translated into points with two penalties from Jantjies.
However despite seemingly being in control of possession and territory the hosts were hit by a wonderful counter-attacking move instigated by Pumas full-back Joaquin Tuculet that eventually resulted in scrum-half Landajo scoring the first try of the match.
South Africa responded late in the first-half with their opening try when Elton Jantjies’ inside ball released winger Skosan who having not been held in the tackle returned to his feet to score his first test try as the Springboks went in at half-time leading 13-5.
Argentina fly-half Sanchez reduced the hosts’ lead with a penalty early in the second half before opposite number Jantjies kept his cool to slot over another penalty to stretch the lead out once again. Minutes later and the Springboks had their second try as Raymond Rhule ran an impressive angle to evade the Pumas defence.
With South Africa 23-8 approaching the final quarter, Daniel Hourcade’s Argentina side needed to respond and did so with Boffelli going over in the corner after concerted pressure from the Pumas pack in attack.
A little over five minutes later though and the match swung the way of the home side once more as expert handling from several South African players freed up space for Siya Kolisi to run in unopposed for yet another Springboks score, before replacement Pieter-Steph du Toit wrapped up victory diving over from close range at a ruck.
A solid start to their Rugby Championship campaign, captain Eben Eztebeth will hope this new generation of Springboks can now begin to step out of the shadows of their illustrious predecessors. After guiding his club to the Super Rugby final, Lions fly-half Elton Jantjies maintained his impressive form both with his attacking and kicking game whilst wingers Skosan and Rhule looked lively throughout as both players registered their first tries for their country. Up front Siya Kolisi was dominant in the back-row whilst the scrum and line-out went well for the hosts.
Whilst Argentina captain Agustin Creevy will be disappointed with defeat, the Pumas looked dangerous with ball-in-hand throughout the game scoring two well-taken tries despite South Africa edging possession and territory. His side will need to tighten up in defence and watch their discipline ahead of the rematch in Salta but with home support behind them Hourcade’s side are very much capable of repeating their 26-24 victory over the Springboks from last year.
Player of the week – Ryan Crotty
Influential in attack throughout for the All Blacks where he played integral role in cutting through Wallabies defence. His intercept and pass helped set up Rieko Ioane for a try before the Crusaders man grabbed two tries of his own. A reassuring presence in defence also. After missing most of the Lions series through injury his performance was a reminder to New Zealand fans of what might have been.