Rugby Championship 2017: Round Six Review

Springbok pride restored despite narrow All Blacks defeat

2017 champions New Zealand completed another unbeaten rugby championship campaign with a 25-24 win in Cape Town despite a spirited South African performance.

Having surrendered meekly in a 57-0 defeat in their last test against the world champions, Allister Coetzee’s side restored some much-needed pride in front of their home fans with a determined performance that on another day may have yielded a victory.

New Zealand ended their rugby championship season by maintaining their 100% record although Steve Hansen will have been concerned with the narrow margin of victory having seen his side miss a glut of opportunities to record a more comfortable win.

With the words of their coaches clearly still ringing in their ears the match at Newlands Stadium began with the hosts producing a number of direct forceful carries at the New Zealand defence, although despite a promising start in possession it was the visitors who nearly opened the scoring with returning All Blacks lock forward Sam Whitelock winning a turnover before launching a counter-attack that saw Nehe Milner-Skudder storm into the South African 22 before giving an exquisite pass to Beauden Barrett only for the move to eventually come to nothing.

A few minutes later Whitelock was penalised for hands in the ruck a couple of metres inside New Zealand’s half and Springbok fly-half Elton Jantjes made him pay for his indiscretion from the kicking tee with a well-struck shot at goal to give South Africa an early lead.

The hosts’ lead did not last long however as clumsy work on the restart from the Springboks saw New Zealand goal-kicker Beauden Barrett offered an early opportunity to level the scores which he gladly took to cancel out Jantjes’ effort.

From the ensuing restart the All Blacks went about asserting some dominance as they began to get their passing game moving, forcing their opponents back deep into their own-half only for a resilient South African defence to be rewarded for their persistence with a penalty to relieve the pressure.

New Zealand soon came back at them though and after being given the ball out wide near half-way All Blacks wing Rieko Ioane evaded the attempted tackle of Jantjes to charge down the touch-line and looked certain to be running in for the try as he stepped in-field only to lose control just before he dotted the ball down due to some expert cover defence from South Africa’s Jessie Kriel.

Once again however the All Blacks maintained their pressure as their forward pack won a penalty from the resulting Springbok scrum before opting for a 5m line-out only to once again see the South African defence come to the fore as hooker Malcolm Marx won a turnover penalty.

Relieved to have escaped with their try-line intact the Springboks responded with their first meaningful attack of the game as Marx drove his team forward with a robust carry that had All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith back-pedalling in defence before a sniping run from Smith’s opposite number Ross Cronje nearly saw him in for the try only for Damian McKenzie to show expert defence in bringing down Cronje before getting back to his feet to steal the ball.

Anyone thinking the visitors would safely clear their lines from this position was mistaken as centre Ryan Crotty launched a devastating counter-attack from his own 22 before some brilliant off-loading saw the All Blacks up to half-way only for a forward pass to stop the move in its tracks and bring an end to a breathless period of attacking play from both teams.

Now with their tails up and a raucous crowd getting behind them, the South Africans were suddenly the ones dominating possession and territory and were awarded a chance to retake the lead with a penalty shot at goal, only for Jantjes’ radar to fail him this time around.

As the half progressed the game became a scrappy affair with both sides guilty of giving away turnovers and penalties, and it was a scrappy piece of play that saw the first try of the match scored as Beauden Barrett charged down a Jantjes kick before hacking the ball down-field and with some desperate last-ditch defending seeing the ball fumble around the South African goal-line area Ryan Crotty arrived to dot the ball down.

With Barrett leaving the field due to injury Damian McKenzie took the subsequent conversion and missed, however despite both sides attacking at will in a half extended to nearly 50 minutes due to both side’s refusal to kick the ball out, there was to be no more scoring as New Zealand went in at the break with a narrow 8-3 lead.

Having been over thirty points down at the same stage in the two sides’ previous meeting in Albany, South Africa went in to the second-half confident they could overturn the five-point deficit and struck back within five minutes of the restart.

Having pinned New Zealand back into their own half, an improvised line-out from Malcolm Marx saw South Africa’s No.2 receive the ball on the touch-line where he wriggled out of the tackle of opposite number Dane Coles before showing neat handling skills to offload to the supporting Steven Kitschoff who pushed his way into the New Zealand 22.

Patient build-up play and some impactful carrying from the Springboks saw them edge closer and closer to the New Zealand try-line before finally after 18 phases of play, scrum-half Ross Cronje showed quick-thinking to dive against the base of the posts and break the New Zealand resistance with the ensuing conversion restoring the hosts’ lead.

The New Zealand pack responded soon after with another dominant scrum near halfway seeing them awarded a penalty although replacement Lima Sopoaga was unable to reward his forward pack with three points as his effort sailed wide.

With neither side seemingly able to get a grip on possession or territory, the game descended into a stop-start nature which suited the hosts with their slender advantage but just as South Africa looked to be building the phases in attack they were hit by a sucker-punch.

A short-ball from Ross Cronje to Springbok team-mate Courtnall Skosan deflected off the chest of the latter and into the hands of the waiting Rieko Ioane who showcased his incredible pace as he streaked up-field away from South African defenders running in from his own 22 for a try converted by Sopoaga that saw the All Blacks take a 15-10 lead with the final quarter approaching.

Fresh from taking the lead New Zealand soon were back inside the South African half trying to put the game to bed but with Malcolm Marx continuing to be a nuisance in winning turnovers South Africa were determined to hit back and did so in style soon after.

More impressive carrying from the Springbok forwards saw the hosts march into their opponents half and after replacement fly-half Handre Pollard had shown good feet to evade some first-up tackles, hooker Malcolm Marx was on his shoulder to take the offload and run into the New Zealand 22 before giving a pass to the supporting Jean-Luc du Preez to run in for the score.

With Handre Pollard adding the extras to push South Africa back into a two-point lead the Newlands crowd were back in full voice hoping to spur their side on to their first victory over New Zealand since 2014.

However this All Blacks side are experts at clutching victory from the jaws of defeat and when New Zealand’s replacement back David Havili received the ball just inside his own half the Crusaders full-back ran it back in-field before skilfully offloading to team-mate McKenzie who sidestepped one tackle before having too much pace for the Springbok defence as he scorched his way to the try-line for another wonderful individual try.

Sopoaga’s conversion pushed New Zealand into a 22-17 lead with just over ten minutes to play and New Zealand were soon back in possession and pushing to take their lead out to more than one score. With repeated phases of play going nowhere in the South African 22, Sopoaga stepped back into the pocket for a drop-goal only to see his attempt go wide of the posts.

That seemed to be the end of the action in that phase of play, yet referee Jerome Garces had other ideas as he went to the Television Match Official to review a possible late tackle on Sopoaga from South Africa’s Damian de Allende.

Whilst replays indicated de Allende was a little late in not pulling out there seemed little the Springbok player did wrong as his momentum saw him push Sopoaga to the ground and with the All Blacks fly-half making the most of it, most people within the Newlands crowd saw nothing wrong with the incident.

Unfortunately for de Allende and South Africa the TMO was not one of those people and incredibly advised Garces to punish the Springbok with a red card, leaving most within the crowd shocked and dumbfounded and South Africa to play the remaining five minutes a man down.

With Sopoaga punishing South Africa even further with a successful penalty shot at goal that increased the All Blacks lead to eight points there seemed little doubt as to the outcome of the result, yet to the hosts’ credit they replied with a strong surge of pressure resulting in a penalty kicked to the corner, where man-of-the-match Marx threw into the line-out before the hooker bundled his way over for a try to give South Africa hope with still over two minutes of the match remaining.

As Pollard pushed the Springboks to within one point of their visitors, hope was high of an unlikely smash-and-grab win but despite South Africa’s best efforts the New Zealand defence held firm in the last play of the game to win the turnover and kick the ball out of play to end an enthralling test match.

Having shipped fifty-seven points in both of their last two meetings against the All Blacks, the South African supporters will be rightfully proud of their team for making it such a competitive test match with captain Eben Eztebeth and hooker Malcolm Marx starring amongst a strong effort from the Springbok pack. Coach Allister Coetzee still has a good deal of work to do in rebuilding South Africa’s fortunes but his side can count themselves unlucky here as were it not for some fortuitous luck for a couple of New Zealand’s tries, the hosts could well have snuck victory.

In contrast New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen will likely be breathing a sigh of relief that his team weren’t made to pay for some uncharacteristic errors in the first-half where they missed some big opportunities to build a score. With twenty turnovers and eleven penalties conceded New Zealand were lacklustre throughout despite their pack dominating the scrums.

With two wins, two defeats and two draws this season it has been a stuttering Rugby Championship campaign for the Springboks and with their end of season tour to come, the Northern Hemisphere sides will hardly be quaking in their boots at the thought of Coetzee’s men rolling into town but there are at least signs with this performance that the two-time world champions are improving.

For New Zealand and Hansen it is yet another title and in securing six wins from six for the second successive Rugby Championship campaign they have done everything asked of them, yet round three aside they have produced a number of erratic displays that have veered from the sublime to the ridiculous and there is still some work to do ahead of their Bledisloe Cup rematch and the European tour.

 

Wallabies attack proves too much for winless Pumas

Australia rounded off their Rugby Championship campaign with a hard-earned 37-20 victory over winless Argentina.

With South Africa being downed by champions New Zealand, the result in Mendoza saw Michael Cheika’s side overtake the Springboks to record a second-place finish in the championship for the second season running.

In contrast, Daniel Hourcade’s Argentina finish the campaign with six losses and even more embarrassingly not a single point to their name.

A tight contest for most of the match, with the two sides tied up at 20 points a piece approaching the hour mark the Wallabies pulled away in the final quarter with two late tries to seal a deserved win that saw them outscore their hosts five tries to two.

The match itself started at a fast and frenetic pace as both sides used quick ball to get their backs on the move, yet with both sides guilty of handling errors as well as conceding cheap penalties neither were able to build an early score.

The visitors however looked the side more capable of making something happening in attack and after a strong spell of sustained pressure against the Argentinian defence was eventually rewarded with a penalty right in front of Argentina’s posts, Wallabies fly-half Bernard Foley made no mistake from the kicking tee.

Sensing an opportunity to further punish their opponents, Australia continued to go on the attack from the restart and quickly opened the try-scoring.

Despite Foley having failed to extend his side’s lead with a poor missed kick at goal after the Australian pack had won a scrum penalty, the Wallabies quickly regrouped and after some quick hands on halfway from a couple of Australians freed up Marika Koribete out wide, the big winger took off down the wing fending off an Argentinian tackle to go in at the corner for his third try in as many tests.

Another missed kick from Foley followed with the attempted conversion, and Argentina soon made the Wallabies 10 pay with their first try of the match.

A succession of Argentina penalties eventually saw the Pumas gain a 5m line-out and having won the line-out the Pumas pack went hunting for the score that would bring them back into the match and after a number of phases brought them up close to the Australian line, lock forward Matias Allemano muscled his way over from close range for a try converted by Nicolas Sanchez.

As quickly as Argentina had fought their way back into the match however they gifted their opponents a further opportunity to extend their lead as poor play from the restart saw the Pumas lose the ball in their 22 before giving away a penalty.

Fortunately for the hosts a kick to the corner came to nothing for the Wallabies as they lost the ball and Argentina launched an impressive counter-attack from deep that came to an end after a poor pass from Matias Moroni, but receiving the ball back in their own half the Pumas went on the attack again and having forced their way into the Australian 22 were awarded a penalty when Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper went off his feet at the ruck.

With Argentina kicker Nicolas Sanchez having no issues from the kicking tee the fly-half punished Hooper and his team-mates with his shot at goal putting Argentina into the lead for the first time.

With just under ten minutes remaining in the half Australia looked to respond quickly and did so when having set up possession inside the Argentinian half they were awarded another penalty.

A kick to the corner followed and having won the line-out and seen the forward pack take the ball up short for a few phases, Wallabies scrum-half Will Genia spotted winger Reece Hodge in space out wide and fired a pass out for Hodge to dive in for an easy score.

Once again however Foley’s kicking radar remained off-course as he missed yet another conversion and with that gave the hosts another opportunity to get swiftly back into the match.

Something which they did when they received a penalty in goal-kicking range shortly after the try, and Sanchez maintained his 100% record with the boot to tie the scores up at 13-13.

Things looked even better for the home fans a few minutes later as Sanchez found space out wide to run in down the channel before giving a pass for team-mate Tuculet to go underneath the posts just before half-time but with the Television Match Official spotting a knock-on from Argentina captain Agustin Creevy in the build-up the try was chalked off and the hosts had to settle for going in at the break on level terms.

Having been saved by the TMO at the end of the first half, the Wallabies came out firing in the second-half and having gone close to scoring within the opening minutes were awarded a scrum penalty, but much like the first-half Foley’s kicking problems continued as another shot at goal sailed wide.

Yet just as it seemed as if it was going to be one of those nights for Australia’s No.10, Foley reminded everyone of his class in attack as he dummied his way past an Argentinian defender and ran in for a try from close range with 52 minutes on the clock, before finally ending his kicking woes with a successful conversion.

The try itself was just reward for the visitors as they dominated possession and territory in the opening 12 minutes of the second-half, however the Wallabies were unable to maintain that dominance as Argentina his back with a try of their own just a few minutes later.

Having forced their way into Australia’s 22 the hosts won a scrum and after some initial carries came to nothing Nicolas Sanchez fed Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias to scythe his way through a gap in the Australian defensive line for a try converted by Sanchez to level the scores once again.

With the scores tied up at 20-20 it seemed to be anyone’s game and with the home fans encouraged by their side taking their chances in attack a first Argentina win of the campaign looked on the cards.

Yet the home fans’ hopes were dashed pretty quickly as after winning a line-out on halfway, Australia captain Hooper peeled off a rolling maul and gave a smart pass for Reece Hodge to come in on the angle and burst through a gap before giving a pass to the supporting Will Genia who had just enough pace to run in for a try off a well-executed move from the Australians, with Foley kicking the subsequent conversion.

Maintaining their attacking pressure, the Wallabies thought they had another shortly after Genia’s try, as Reece Hodge charged on to a pass from Genia and went over but with replays indicating Genia threw a forward pass in an earlier phase the try was not given.

Having spent most of the half with-out the ball, a quick turnover ball from Argentina on halfway looked as if it had given them a great counter-attacking opportunity though despite Juan Martin Hernandez showing an impressive turn of speed to run in from his own half the move was correctly called back for a forward pass from Pumas scrum-half Martin Landajo.

That proved to be as good as it got for the hosts in the final quarter of the match as the Wallabies wore down their hosts in attack and when Marcos Kremer was yellow-carded for a tip-tackle the Pumas went into the final ten minutes a man down.

With Foley punishing Kremer’s indiscretion further with a successful penalty shot at goal, the Wallabies had some breathing space on the scoreboard and despite a long-range missed kick from Reece Hodge failing to extend their lead further, the Australian defence held firm as Argentina went desperately searching for the try that would rekindle any hope of a first win.

Having survived that late Argentinian charge the Wallabies then sealed victory as man-of-the-match Hodge ran in for his second try of the match after more impressive handling from the Wallabies, before Foley added some extra gloss to the score-line with a conversion.

An impressive result and performance from the Wallabies who once again looked devastating in attack and coach Miacheal Cheika will be particularly happy with how his side retained the ball and controlled the match in the second-half. In his second consecutive test start Jack Dempsey continued to impress with a real dynamic performance from the loose forward that saw him carry the ball well throughout, whilst Reece Hodge had arguably his best game in a Wallaby jersey as he was everywhere in attack and deservedly finished the match with a brace of tries.

Argentina were once again poor and whilst they put up more of a fight than in their previous match against New Zealand, they struggled to retain pressure and were second-best throughout. Despite having limited opportunities the Pumas did show a more clinical edge in attack, but as has been the case all championship their defence let them down again especially in the final quarter where they faded just as in previous matches.

Australia coach Cheika will move on to the third Bledisloe test and end-of-season tour with his side seemingly on an upward trajectory, and confident that with his team beginning to fire in attack they can take a few scalps.

For Pumas coach Daniel Hourcade time could be running out and after remaining winless so far this year a tour that includes trips to England and Ireland is a daunting proposition.

 

Player of the week:

Malcolm Marx (South Africa)

If ever a performance merited victory it was this one, an all-action display from the Springboks No.2 who was influential in a much-improved display from South Africa.

Won as a many as four turnovers for his side to help relieve pressure, carried with real force and shown neat handling skills with a couple of offloads.

Was prominent in attack where he set up one try and scored another and after struggling at line-out time in test in Albany was much more accurate with his throwing in at Newlands.

A ten-out-of-ten performance from a player with a bright future in test rugby.

 

Featured Image c/o Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

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