Rugby Championship 2017: Round Four Review

Springboks blown away by rampant All Blacks

New Zealand edged ever closer to another Southern Hemisphere title with a record 57-0 win over old foes South Africa in Albany.

In a quite exquisite performance from Steve Hansen’s side in attack and defence the hosts ran in eight tries – four in each half – and even more impressively kept Allister Coetzee’s Springboks side off the scoreboard for the entirety of the match.

With four wins from four in this season’s championship, the All Blacks are closing in on back-to-back Rugby Championship titles, with only South Africa able to catch them in the table although with the Springboks now eight points behind that is looking more and more unlikely.

Ahead of the match in Albany there was much anticipation with both sides going into round four with unbeaten records.

Having suffered a humiliating 57-15 defeat in Durban the last time the two sides met each other, the Springboks were out for revenge and started the match in positive fashion enjoying plenty of possession and territory.

Despite this the Springboks were unable to turn pressure into points with their passing and handling skills letting them down at crucial points, whilst the first signs that this was not to be their day came when Elton Jantjes – so clinical from the kicking tee in the opening three rounds of fixtures – missed a very kickable penalty in front of the New Zealand posts.

The visitors were soon made to pay for these missed opportunities when Beauden Barrett made no mistake from the tee as he opened the scoring with a penalty kick.

A few minutes later and a moment of magic from New Zealand scrum-half Aaron Smith saw the first try of the contest.

Having being awarded a penalty on half-way, most of the crowd in Albany expected the All Blacks to kick to the corner but sharpness of thought from Smith saw the No.9 take a quick-tap penalty before executing a perfectly-weighted kick off his weaker foot over the top of the South African defence and into the corner where winger Rieko Ioane was able to race on to collect the ball and dive over for the score, before Barrett added the extras with a conversion.

Having gotten off to a solid enough start, the Springboks were left reeling and it wasn’t long before New Zealand increased their lead further with another try courtesy of some devilish skill once again.

As South Africa slowly inched up field through the phases, All Blacks wing Nehe Milner-Skudder sensed an opening in behind and after intercepting a South African pass set off down-field. With Springboks wing Courtnall Skosan racing down on him, Milner-Skudder gave the pass to the supporting Beauden Barrett and just as when it looked as if he would try and run in on his own, the fly-half  produced an audacious no-look back-handed flick that took out two South African defenders and allowed Milner-Skudder an easy run-in for the try.

By now the floodgates had been opened and with Barrett knocking over another conversion the hosts had a 17-0 lead going into the second quarter of the match.

Soon after scoring the second try the All Blacks were dealt a blow however with the influential Liam Squire being forced off the field through injury, with Scott Barrett arriving to replace him on the field.

After recovering from New Zealand’s two-try blitz, the Springboks regained some composure and enjoyed a decent spell of possession and territory, although their accuracy once again let them down with hooker Malcolm Marx continually giving away possession with poorly thrown line-outs and when yet another line-out error led to a New Zealand scrum, it wasn’t long before New Zealand punished their opponents.

A heavy shove from the New Zealand pack saw a penalty awarded to the hosts and after kicking to the corner and winning the line-out, the All Blacks set charge towards the South African 22. After a number of phases, Rieko Ioane looked set to go over in the conner yet when he was brought down Beauden Barrett moved the ball quickly across to the other wing with a cross-field kick intended for Dane Coles. Some desperate Springbok defence saw the ball go loose, only for Scott Barrett to pick the ball up and show excellent footwork to weave his way around defenders close to the touch-line and stay in field to grab the try.

Having been hit by two scores in quick succession earlier in the match, South Africa failed to learn their lesson as barely a minute from the restart they conceded again.

Winger Rieko Ioane found space out wide and spotting a mismatch in front of him ran between South African hooker Marx and winger Raymond Rhule before evading the tackles of two other South Africans and soon New Zealand had runners everywhere in support, with patient handling first from Ioane and then from Dane Coles creating the space for lock forward Brodie Retallick to walk in underneath the posts for the hosts’ fourth try just before half-time.

With Barrett maintaining his 100% kicking record in the half with the conversion, New Zealand had a 31-0 lead going into half-time and despite South Africa producing their best pattern of play of the match to go within five metres of the New Zealand try-line, the All Blacks recovered possession and kicked the ball out for the end of the half with the Springboks still pointless on the scoreboard.

The second-half began with South Africa trying to regain the momentum they had finished the first-half with and despite having plenty of ball they once again failed to make the inroads into the New Zealand half.

As both sides started to unload their benches the start of the second-half took on something of a stop-start affair with both sides guilty of handling errors.

Just over ten minutes in though and the next try arrived as having won a line-out inside South Africa’s 22 the New Zealand pack tried to shove their way over the try-line through a number of phases before finally space was created out wide for Beauden Barrett to float a pass out to Milner-Skudder who just about reached the try-line before being tackled into touch. Referee Nigel Owens confirmed the try via the television match official and despite Barrett missing his first kick of the night from the subsequent conversion, the hosts had opened the scoring in the second-half.

Some resolute All Blacks defending once again kept the South Africans at bay and it wasn’t long before the hosts turned defence into attack.

As the game entered the final quarter New Zealand emptied their bench and it was the replacements who came to the fore to close the game out, with the All Blacks front-row the first to make their mark.

Having seen replacement hooker Codie Taylor come just short of sliding over the try-line, the hosts kept the pressure on with a strong scrum winning a penalty that was kicked to the corner.

From the resulting line-out the ball was taken in and charged up through the forwards before replacement props Wyatt Crockett and Ofa Tu’ungafasi combined to force the latter over for a try converted by fly-half Barrett.

By now 43-0 down with under a quarter to play, the Springboks only had pride left to play for and as the clock ticked over to the 70-minute mark they finally showed some defensive resolve to keep out the All Blacks.

However any hopes that would remain the case for the final ten minutes were soon put to bed with another scintillating score from New Zealand as two replacements combined again.

When Lima Sopoaga received the ball off a line-out just inside South Africa’s half there seemed little danger for the visitors but after firing out a pass to fellow sub Anton Lienert-Brown, the centre didn’t break stride as he crashed into Handre Pollard leaving the Springbok on the seat of his pants before using his pace to streak away from other defenders before having the foresight to offload the ball to Sopoaga who dived in for a wonderful try off first-phase ball.

With the game all but over and the South Africans having nothing left to give, all was left was for the hosts to deliver the final nail into the coffin as Codie Taylor became the fourth New Zealand replacement to score as he went over from a rolling maul to seal a record win.

After such a dismal defeat the Springboks and their supporters will be hurting and questions will once again be asked of the direction the national side is heading in under Allister Coetzee.

Players such as Malcolm Marx, Elton Jantjes and Jessie Kriel who had played such starring roles in the previous rounds seemed to shrink under the pressure of playing against the All Blacks with the line-out – such an effective weapon in South African rugby – in particular proving a disaster. Stray passes, handling errors and a porous defence all led the way for an abysmal performance and there is much work to do ahead of the final two matches.

For New Zealand however this was just about as good as it gets. A faultless display of attacking and defending that saw them play what at times looked like fantasy rugby. A huge team effort throughout, the replacements provided a huge impact in initiating the second-half onslaught at a time when some of the starting XV were beginning to tire. Having struggled with the boot in the last game against Argentina, Beauden Barrett’s goal-kicking was exemplary with eight successful kicks from nine attempts, a statistic that will very much please coach Hansen.

The most impressive part of the All Blacks game though was defence, as the players provided departing defence coach Wayne Smith with the perfect retirement present of keeping their opponents off the scoreboard. Smith will have been particularly proud to see his players defend with such great intensity even when they were comfortably ahead on the scoreboard and especially after some poor defensive performances in the recent past.

New Zealand will now look to make it six-from-six for the second rugby championship running with trips to Argentina and South Africa respectively in their remaining two games, whilst South Africa must pick themselves up off the canvas and keep their ever-so-slim title hopes alive with home games against Australia and New Zealand to come.

 

Wallabies’ second-half onslaught produces first win against Pumas

Australia finally got off the mark in this season’s championship as a second-half surge from the men in green and gold saw them record a 45-20 win over Argentina.

Having come off the back of two defeats and a draw from their opening three matches in this season’s tournament, Michael Cheika’s side were desperate to get their campaign up-and-running and backed it up with a strong second-half performance.

Going in at half-time trailing 13-10 to their visitors, the Wallabies produced their best rugby of the season to run in five second-half tries and seal a big win.

For Daniel Hourcade’s Argentina the match was yet another bruising encounter for his side’s pride as they suffered another heavy defeat that leaves them bottom of the table and still looking for their first win.

With both sides yet to taste victory in this year’s Rugby Championship, there was a cagey start to proceedings at the GIO Stadium in Canberra with the two fly-halves Bernard Foley and Nicolas Sanchez trading early penalties to get the scoreboard going.

As the first-half wore on the Pumas began to assert themselves in the game dominating possession and territory so it proved no surprise when they grabbed the opening try of the game a little over twenty minutes in.

The move began with an uncharacteristic error from Wallabies full-back Israel Folau as he knocked on trying to catch a high ball on halfway. From there Argentina patiently made their way up field and following a few surging runs, they found themselves camped in Australia’s 22 with the try-line in sight. A few pick-and-go’s from the forward pack saw them right up to the Aussie try-line where scrum-half Martin Landajo squeezed his way through to dot down. Despite replays showing an apparent obstruction from Pumas skipper Agustin Creevy on defender Ned Hanigan the try was awarded before Sanchez added the extras to push Argentina into a 10-3 lead.

With the Wallabies smarting from the injustice of the decision to award the try, it didn’t take long for the hosts to respond.

In a first-half devoid of much running rugby, Australia produced the best play of the half in the build-up to their first try, as good handling between forwards and backs in midfield eventually saw the ball move out wide to winger Reece Hodge. With Hodge brought down just outside the Pumas’ 22 quick ball from Australia No.9 Will Genia saw the Wallabies move the play from one side of the field to the other in the blink of an eye before some expert offloading resulted in Bernard Foley giving a pass out wide to full-back Folau who had enough space to evade the last-ditch tackle of Emiliano Boffelli and cross over for his third try of the Championships.

With Foley converting the try the scores were once again level with half-time fast approaching, but Argentina again responded with a strong spell of possession and territory to round off the half.

A succession of penalties for the visitors in the Australian half offered up the opportunity for the Pumas to go into the break leading and although Nicolas Sanchez’ well-struck penalty saw them go in 13-10 up, Daniel Hourcade would have been disappointed to see his side go in with just a three-point lead after missed kicks at goal from Boffelli and Sanchez late in the half.

Those kicks would prove costly as having likely received some harsh words from coach Michael Cheika for a lacklustre first-half showing, Australia came out all guns blazing for the restart.

If Argentina had dominated possession and territory in the first 40, Australia soon went about changing that in the opening ten minutes of the second-half, and duly responded with the first score.

Having won a scrum just five metres out from the Argentinian’s line, strong running from first Michael Hooper and then Sean McMahon saw the Wallabies right up to the line before prop Sekope Kepu picked the ball up and dived over from close range with Foley’s conversion extending the Wallaby lead to four points.

By now the Australians had the bit between their teeth and just a couple of minutes later they added to their lead. Having gradually worked their way into the Pumas 22 through a number of phases, Rob Simmons made a break before skilfully offloading to Genia who in turn pushed a long pass out to Folau who had the pace to run in at the corner for his second of the match.

Having seen their three-point half-time lead quickly turn in an eleven-point deficit in the second-half, Daniel Hourcade needed to see a strong response from his side and as the clock ticked towards the hour mark, the Pumas looked to hit back.

With the Argentinian forwards having made significant inroads into the Australian defence in the first-half, captain Agustin Creevy led from the front as his pack looked to power their way over the hosts’ try-line.

Against a resilient Wallabies defence however the Pumas struggled to grab the score that would bring them back into the match and despite a sustained spell of pressure right on the Australian try-line, the hosts’ defence stayed firm eventually winning a penalty to relieve the pressure.

Argentina were soon made to pay for their lack of killer instinct and when repeated infringements at the scrum resulted in replacement prop Enrique Pieretto being yellow-carded, Australia took advantage with a couple of tries.

The first came as Will Genia benefitted from another powerful Australian scrum to pick the ball up and go over from close-range, before the hosts ran in the try of the match.

Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale combined to put Sean McMahon in space out wide where the No.8 showed an excellent burst of speed to race past Argentinian defenders before giving a pass in-field to the supporting Nick Phipps and despite being brought down just short of the line the replacement scrum-half reached over to dot down for the hosts’ fifth try and clinch the win.

A late flurry saw Matias Moroni produce a great moment of individual skill in chipping ahead before collecting his own kick and diving over for a consolation score, but Australia were to have the last word as replacement hooker Jordan Uelese crashed over for his maiden test try.

After a difficult start to their Rugby Championship season with some encouraging performances not turned into results , Australia coach Michael Cheika and captain Michael Hooper will have been delighted to see their side get off the mark with their blistering second-half attacking display in particular proving a highlight.

With Foley and Beale dove-tailing seamlessly together in midfield and Folau providing the cutting edge from behind, the Wallabies seem to be clicking into gear in attack, whilst up-front Sean McMahon and Michael Hooper are excelling in defence to go with their powerful ball-carrying.

For Argentina it was yet another match to slip them by late on and having blown a half-time lead for the second game running, fitness may be the issue with this Pumas side.

In the tight exchanges of the first-half the visitors were in control of proceedings with good work at the breakdown yielding penalty opportunities, however when the game becomes loose Hourcade’s side seem unable to stem the attacking threat of the opposition especially from deep and their defence must improve if they are to avoid a winless campaign.

Looking ahead to this season’s penultimate round of fixtures Australia will travel to South Africa with renewed confidence that they can add to this win, whilst Argentina face the unenviable task of attempting to take down the All Blacks back at home.

 

Player of the Week:

Bernard Foley (Australia)

Could quite easily have been any of the All Blacks match-day 23 after their incredible collective performance but Bernard Foley was the driving force behind a big win for Australia.

A masterful display from the Wallabies fly-half, kicking seven out of seven from the kicking tee in an influential display, he was the creative hub in attack where he helped set up a number of tries with his impressive passing game and even helped out in defence where he somehow managed to stop a certain Pumas second-half try by getting under the body of an Argentinian attacker as he fell towards the try-line and ripping the ball away.

A player growing into a real leader within this Australian team.

Featured Image c/o Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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