The Rugby Championship Week 1: What Did We Learn?
Alas, the 2019 Rugby Championship is already a third of the way done. Rugby’s brief summer sojourn was broken last Saturday when a striking second-string Springbok side comfortably bested Michael Cheika’s disconnected Wallabies and the Argentinians fall agonisingly short of a much-changed All Blacks team. Our brief taste of life without regular rugby will come to an end faster than it seems to have begun, with World Cup preparations well and truly on the cards as we trundle headlong towards Japan.
But enough premature mourning of the end of the Rugby Championship, we still have two weekends to go and the Springboks seem to have the entire rugby world a flutter; with equal parts eager anticipation and trepidation.
Let’s start with the first, and best, game of the weekend, with that oh-so impressive victory for Rassie Erasmus with a very much second-choice XV, comfortably putting Michael Cheika’s Wallaby outfit that, while missing several key players, was much closer to first-choice.
As addressed in our tournament preview, South Africa and Australia suffered similar fates between the last World Cup and the one we find outselves speeding towards. Both nations dropped to all-time lows in the world rankings and have since fought their way fought back to some sembelance of form, and with greatly improved from from their Super Rugby sides and added much-needed depth to their national squads. However, South Africa seems now to have taken a sizeable step ahead while Australia look to have fallen behind again. While the Springboks have always been famed for their rough, tough, biltong-chewing pack, acheiving gain line ascendancy, the coherence from 1-23 was a real standout in their 35-17 victory on Saturday.
We’ve already seen the enjoyment Erasmus has reinstated to the Springbok setup, but the continuity his entire squad seem to be playing is perhaps the most impressive factor for the rainbow nation as they head into the second round of the Rugby Championship.
Furthermore, little-known Stormers scrum-half Herschel Jantjies has successfully fought off the advances of the returning Northampton Saints man Cobus Reinach. Alongside his namesake at fly-half, Elton Jantjies, the Stormers halfback proved himself to be the natural successor/backup to Erasmus’s first-choice nine, Sale Sharks’ Faf de Klerk. Jantjies plays in a similar, nuggety style to de Klerk, and in a lesser sense, Reinach. Either way, South Africa’s scrum-half stocks are now three-deep and, crucially, of a similar mould; high-tempo men who are more than capable of punching above their weight.
Equally, the likes of Sibusiso Nkosi on the right wing, Andre Esterhuizen at inside centre and Francois Louw at number eight have all proved or reaffirmed their quality as starting Springboks. From the bench, the returning European-based trio of backrower Marcell Coetzee, the aforementioned Reinach and centre Francois Steyn have all also convinced enough to warrant World Cup inclusion.
In their second fixture of the year away to New Zealand this week, we can expect to see a first-choice Springbok team, offering us a chance to analyse exactly where Erasmus's side are as we build up to Japan. But going by what we've seen already, they're back to something close to full health.
While, like Erasmus, Cheika has indeed greatly improved Australia's depth by utilising players such as Isi Naisarani, Folau Fainga’a and Tom Banks from Super Rugby and Nic White from overseas, it has, so far, offered a much watered-down product to that of Erasmus’s. White claims the majority of the plaudits in defeat, controlling the game as well as could be expected from the recources at hand in Johannesburg.
The most concerning factor for Cheika is the contrasting fate his side suffered when placed opposite the Springboks. While Erasmus’s side impressed with their compatibility with both the game plan and new teammates, Australia still seem relatively aimless. The starkest example of such came seconds before Herschel Jantjies’s second-try last weekend when he sniped around the blindside of a ruck on the far left touchline to steal over the try-line from 15 metres out.
Usually Australia’s most composed and consistent performer in the backline, right wing Dane Haylett-Petty took the decision to compete at the ruck that preceded Jantjies’s second score for the day, leaving a gaping hole for the young halfback to snipe through and dart up the pitch. With Haylett-Petty kindly stepping out of the way, Jantjies extended the home side’s lead from eleven points to eighteen, putting to bed any significant hope of a Wallabies comeback.
This moment of confused decision-making from Haylett-Petty makes for an accurate representation of the Wallabies at current. There’s plenty of desire and goodwill, but ultimately still some way off the mark.
But we must also recognis, the significant difference Will Genia, Kurtley Beale and Matt Toomua made for the Wallabies from the bench. This trio will go some way to attempting to solve and eventually stamp out the lack of direction from which Australia is currently suffering. With a game at home this Saturday, we'll have the opportunity to see how they and potentially 117-cap veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper and James O'Connor can aim the ship towards defined co-ordinates.
As predicted in our preview, the Argentinians were the only nation to put out a truly first-choice XV over the weekend. Partly due to their opposition, the All Blacks, but also due to their need to maintain the momentum gained by the Super Rugby finalists Los Jaguares.
The lesson to be taken away from the Pumas’ four-point defeat in Buenos Aires, while standalone, is significant. The question posed to the Argentinians ahead of last weekend’s Kiwi tussle was whether or not they could take what is essentially their Super Rugby team, with just two added overseas stars, and acheive the same level of success at Test level.
As it turned out, they could.
In the influential positions of fly-half and tighthead prop, respectively, Nicolas Sanchez and Juan Figallo would prove enough of a change to ensure the national side possesses a point of difference to their nation’s sole professional club.
With a trip away to a currently disjointed Australia on the cards this week, Mario Ledesma has an excellent opportunity to claim a chest-thumping win on the road and continue Argentina’s, and the Jaguares', momentum. While the travel and time difference will undoubtedly make the job more difficult for Los Pumas, they are well versed with regular long-distance travel these days.
As we arrive at our final destination, the notability of the learning points becomes scarcer. The All Blacks were far from their best at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani, but then it’s almost tradition that New Zealand seems a little rusty in their first game of the year. Steve Hansen will have his side humming like a finely tuned Mustang by the time they host the Springboks this weekend, I’m sure.
The standout lesson, from this writer’s eyes at least, comes from the dynamic performances of Hurricanes openside Ardie Savea at number eight and Anton Lienert-Brown at outside centre.
There is no doubt that Kieran Read starts at the back of the scrum in a World Cup playoff game, but Savea’s dynamism and efficacy at the breakdown are once again pushing the argument for the younger of the All Blacks brothers to claim a starting role. For now, he’ll likely have to settle for his bench spot behind both Sam Cane at seven and Read at eight while an out-and-out blindside starts ay six, but the argument for including all three in a backrow grows in volume.
Lienert-Brown, meanwhile, has likely done all he can now to convince Hansen whether or not he should be taken to Japan over last weekend's midfield partner, the Hurricanes barraling inside centre Ngani Laumape. With Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty expected to return to fitness and Jack Goodhue seemingly already a certain tourist, Laumape and Lienert-Brown are expected to be competing for a first-class ticket.
It’s very much a battle of brains vs brawn for this final midfield slot, with Laumape’s powerful and direct running that so often produces line breaks and tries competing with Lienert-Brown’s supreme consistency and perhaps the most rounded skillset of all of the All Black midfielders. Hansen’s fellow head coaches look on in envy of his midfield headache.
Keep en eye out for what will surely be the game of the tournament when the Springboks travel to New Zealand this week, while the Australians attempt to salvage some pride with a home victory against an Argentina side rumbling towards Queensland in fine form, despite their latest defeat.