RC2017: Round Three Review

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Nervy New Zealand stumble over the line against Pumas

New Zealand maintained their winning start to the Rugby Championship season, coming from behind to beat Argentina 39-22 in New Plymouth.

The All Blacks ran in six tries in all and came through despite some dodgy goal-kicking whilst Nicolas Sanchez scored the Pumas only try with the rest of their points coming from the boot of Sanchez and Emiliano Boffelli respectively.

Having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Australia in the previous round, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen took the opportunity to rotate his squad for the visit of Daniel Hourcade’s side with a number of changes from the starting XV against the Wallabies, and it was two of those changes that contributed to New Zealand opening up a first-half lead.

Having been dogged by injury since his try-scoring heroics in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Nehe Milner-Skudder was desperate to make up for lost time in his first test match since the Rugby World Cup final. The Hurricanes winger didn’t have to wait long either to make an impact as after Damian McKenzie sliced through the Argentina defence he was on hand to receive the pass and score the opening try of the match just eight minutes in.

Having suffered two heavy defeats against the Springboks in the opening two rounds of the Championship, the travelling Pumas support must have been fearing the worst at this point but fly-half Nicolas Sanchez soon got the visitors first points on the board with a penalty.

Once again however it didn’t take long for Steve Hansen’s men to extend their lead as following a stong All Blacks scrum in Argentina’s 22, centre Anton Lienert-Brown got to Beauden Barrett’s grubber kick just before it crossed the dead-ball line to grab the hosts’ second try.

Having missed the first conversion from out wide, New Zealand No.10 Barrett fared no better with his second attempt restricting the All Blacks to a 10-3 lead approaching the twenty-minute mark.

With Barrett having a bad start with his kicking, Argentina now sensed an opportunity to get back into the contest and soon restricted the hosts lead to just one point through Emiliano Boffelli’s penalty and a Sanchez drop-goal.

Just as the Argentinains were beginning to get their tails up however, New Zealand responded with another try as from an attacking scrum the ball was moved out wide for Israel Dagg to cross over, although Barrett’s kicking woes continued with another missed conversion.

With half-time approaching it looked as if New Zealand would go in with a six-point lead, yet when the All Blacks pack lost their own line-out ball in their 22 Pumas captain Agustin Creevy picked up the ball and charged towards the line. With the New Zealand defence scrambling to bring him down just short of the line, Argentina recycled the ball quickly and Nicolas Sanchez went over for the try beneath the posts. The subsequent conversion from the try-scorer meant that despite out-scoring their opponents three tries to one, the Pumas went in at half-time with a 16-15 lead.

As the second-half began it didn’t take long for Argentina to extend their lead as Boffelli kicked another long-range penalty – this time from out wide near the half-way line.

With the All Blacks rattled Argentina went through a number of attacking phases deep in the New Zealand half, before after a long spell of pressure Beauden Barrett received a yellow card and Sanchez once again pushed Argentina further ahead with a penalty.

As the clock ticked over to fifty minutes, seven points behind and a man in the bin the hosts were in trouble but responded with a superb solo score. In his first test start, All Blacks blindside flanker Vaea Fifita had already caught the eye with some monstrous ball-carrying although when he received the ball in the middle of the field 30 metres out from Argentina’s try-line there didn’t seem much on. However showing a scarcely believable turn of pace for a forward the Hurrucanes flanker stepped around Pumas wing Santiago Cordero before charging downfield and evading some desperate last-ditch defending to score in the corner.

With Barrett still off the field, replacement Lima Sopoaga took over goal-kicking duties and added the extras to tie the scores up.

With Barrett returning to the field as the last quarter approached New Zealand now had the momentum and another impressive shove from an All Blacks scrum just five metres out from Argentina’s try-line saw the hosts go through several phases before Damian McKenzie collected TJ Perenara’s missed pass and dive over in the corner for a try converted by Sopoaga.

Just minutes later and McKenzie thought he had his second of the match as he received a pass from another surging Fifita run to go in under the posts, only for the try to be disallowed for a forward pass from Fifita.

With only one score in it the hosts were looking to pull clear and ten minutes from time Sopoaga stepped up again to continue his goal-kicking master-class with a penalty that stretched the All Blacks lead out to ten points.

Having unloaded the bench in the final quarter of the match, the New Zealand replacements came to the fore late on as another strong All Blacks scrum pushed Argentina back before replacement centre Ngani Laumape released Beaden Barrett to seal the win.

New Zealand coach Hansen will know his side have plenty to improve upon with the visit of South Africa to come next. He will have been happy to see Milner-Skudder return to test action with a try and will surely have enjoyed watching Vaea Fifita wreak havoc with his powerful carrying ball-in-hand.

Despite this Barrett’s goal-kicking remains an issue and the six points he missed from conversion attempts could have proved much more significant in another match. Lima Sopoaga’s accuracy from the tee was invaluable in the second-half and the Highlanders fly-half may have forced his way into the reckoning for a start against South Africa. Damian McKenzie’s struggles under the high ball may lead to Barrett shifting to full-back to accommodate Sopoaga’s inclusion, although a try and assist from McKenzie displayed what you would be missing in leaving him out.

Argentina travel to Australia in round four still looking for a first win and will be gutted to have let a seven-point second-half lead slip and their defence needs to improve, but Daniel Hourcade would have been impressed by the fight shown by his side especially up front where they edged the battle at the breakdown. As well as that with the goal-kicking prowess of Sanchez and Boffelli if they sort out their defence they have marksman capable of edging tight games.

 

Springboks rally late on to secure draw in Perth

South Africa remain unbeaten in this year’s Rugby Championship as they recovered from a 20-10 second-half deficit against Australia in Perth.

After back-to-back defeats to New Zealand in the previous rounds, Michael Cheika’s Wallabies side are still without a win this campaign and will be frustrated at letting a lead slip for the second consecutive game.

In contrast, Allister Coetzee will be delighted that his Springboks side recovered to salvage something from a match that looked to be slipping them by early in the second-half.

The match itself proved to be a nip and tuck affair with neither side able to pull clear of the other, with both sides scoring their points in identical fashion; two tries, two conversions and three penalties each.

South Africa opened the scoring at the NIB Stadium just a couple of minutes in when fly-half Elton Jantjes struck over a penalty after team-mate Pieter-Steph du Toit had his legs taken from underneath him at a Springbok line-out, although their lead did not last long with Jantjes’ opposite number Bernard Foley levelling things up with his own kick at goal.

Having caused several problems for Argentina in their previous match with their counter-attacking, the visitors retook the lead just over twenty minutes into the match scoring the first try of the game.

There seemed little danger for hosts Australia when Israel Folau was tackled out wide just inside South Africa’s half, yet good work at the ruck from Springbok lock forward du Toit secured a turnover where scrum-half Ross Cronje picked up the loose ball before giving a pass out wide to centre Jessie Kriel.

With defenders in front of him Kriel chose to kick the ball down-field and despite Australian protests over a shove on captain Michael Hooper from opposition winger Raymond Rhule, Kriel followed up to dive over in the corner before Jantjes added the extras from the kicking tee.

Any hope South Africa had of quickly extending their lead went up in smoke however as Australia hit back immediately with a score of their own.

With two tries in two Rugby Championship matches this season, you would think that the Springbok defence would be extra wary of the threat posed by Wallabies centre Kurtley Beale, however picking the ball up just inside South Africa’s 22 following strong surges from the Aussie forwards the former Wasps player still had the time and space to weave his way through the visitors defence and score.

With Australian Foley having something of a goal-kicking nightmare the previous round in Dunedin, the Waratahs stand-off once again showed no signs of a hangover from that match as he converted Beale’s score to tie the scores up before a needless block from Jantjes on his rival fly-half saw Australia’s no.10 step up to give them a slender 13-10 lead at half-time.

Clearly now sensing the momentum was with them the Wallabies returned for the second-half and wasted little time in pushing out their lead.

After a sustained spell of pressure from Australia close to the South African try-line eventually resulted in a penalty being awarded to the hosts, Wallabies hooker Tatafu Poloto-Nau threw in the line-out before arriving at the back of a driving maul, taking up possession of the ball as the Australian pack forced their way over the try-line in a huge statement of intent from the Aussie forwards.

With Foley adding the extras, Australia’s lead grew to ten points and with just over 30 minutes of the match remaining, South Africa needed to react fast if they were to avoid their first defeat of the campaign.

Coetzee’s side responded to Australia’s try by surging their way up-field and following a number of phases were finally rewarded for their persistence with a penalty shot at goal that Jantjes duly struck over to cut the hosts lead to seven points.

Just a couple of minutes later and South Africa were rewared with another penalty inside the Australian half and a kick to the corner gave them an attacking line-out in their opponents’ 22.

A South African pack still hurting from conceding a try from a driving maul then repeated the trick on their opposite numbers as a powerful surge saw them storm their way over for hooker Malcolm Marx to score, with Jantjes maintaining his perfect record from the tee with another conversion.

With the scores now back level, everything was to play for but having only ten minutes earlier been left reeling by an Australian try, South Africa were now the side carrying all the momentum, with Springbok flanker Siya Kolisi pouncing on a loose ball from an Australian scrum to release team-mate Jessie Kriel.

The centre managed to push his way into the Australian 22 before offloading to flanker Jaco Kriel who raced towards the posts only for Israel Folau to prevent a certain try with a last-ditch tackle before South Africa knocked the ball on with the try-line in sight.

However just as it looked as if South Africa’s chance to take the lead had gone, the Springbok pack produced a monstrous shove on the resulting Australian scrum to win a penalty right in front of the posts, which Jantjes dispatched to give the visitors a three point lead with just over ten minutes to play.

Just a few minutes later though and indiscipline would cost Coetzee’s men as replacement scrum-half Francois Hougaard illegally cleared out Australia No.9 Will Genia through a ruck, leaving referee Glen Jackson no option but to award an Australian penalty which Foley converted to level the scores up once again.

In a frantic final play both sides sensed a chance to win the match with Elton Jantjes’ attempted drop-goal being charged down by Aussie skipper Hooper, only for Siya Kolisi to collect the loose ball before team-mate Jan Serfontein nearly broke through. With the clock now in red a knock-on by Jessie Kriel gave Australia the opportunity to kick the ball out but instead the Australian backs tried to run the ball out from their own line and score themselves, before Samu Kerevi’s knock-on brought an end to a breathless period of play with both sides having to settle for a draw.

Given how each side have performed in the championship so far, Australia will be the side most frustrated at not grabbing the win, although South Africa will be disappointed to have edged in front late on only to hand Australia a route back in with a cheap penalty.

Allister Coetzee will have been pleased with the character shown by his side. Having comfortably beaten Argentina home and away, they faced their first real challenge when down 20-10 early in the second-half but instead of panicking the players kept their cool and gradually worked their way back into the match.

Such has been Australia’s misfortune in the last two games in particular, Michael Cheika must be left wondering what on earth his Wallabies side need to do to grab that elusive victory. Despite the disappointment there have been positives to come out of recent performances, with Kurtley Beale proving a nightmare for opposition defences in midfield, whilst Michael Hooper’s more prominent performances suggest a player who is better equipped to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being an international captain.

With four soft tries conceded in the match, both sides will need to work on defence ahead of their next fixtures, where South Africa travel to Championship leaders New Zealand, whilst Australia host Argentina with both sides looking for that first win.

 

Player of the WeekVaea Fifita (New Zealand)

A seismic performance from an absolute man-mountain.

The Hurricanes flanker was unstoppable in attack with his pace, power and brute strength coming to the fore. Was arguably New Zealand’s most prominent player in the match not only scoring that wonder-try but providing the initial burst that led to Milner-Skudder’s try.

A raw prospect who still needs to work on a few areas including the breakdown where the Argentinians edged out their hosts, but a hugely exciting player who has the potential to become a star.

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