AUCKLAND, NZ – The Rugby Championship round 4 saw two very contrasting games, a couple of unfortunate injuries and, thankfully, no qualms over officiating. I told you in the preview that the All Blacks/Springboks was most likely going to be a tough, old-fashioned encounter and that’s exactly what we saw in Wellington. Meanwhile over on the Gold Coast the Wallabies and Pumas had a higher scoring affair, marked by a gallant comeback by the visitors.
The action kicked off at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, where purists would have been delighted as the All Blacks and Boks slugged out a brutal match that brought back memories of their classics in the pre-professional era. The All Blacks eventually prevailed as victors by a slender margin, but it wasn’t without a fight. From the kickoff both team’s intentions were clear, with boot getting put to ball often as territory became the main order of business on a cold, wet night. Aaron Cruden got the All Blacks on the board first with a penalty, but it came after a period of sustained pressure that should have resulted in a try. This frustration at the Boks stout defense led to some uncharacteristic errors from the home side, most notably a botched kick-off reception by Kieran Read. His opposite, Duane Vermuelen, had obviously been given free rein to wreak havoc defensively and went on a mission to introduce as many All Blacks to his shoulder as quickly and forcefully as possible. He generally caused some serious pain to anyone with the ball, which was thankfully allowed to stand by referee Jerome Garces, unlike his perfectly legitimate hit last week. Against the run of play the Boks scored the first try of the match, after a well timed back line move saw Cornal Hendricks blast through the midfield to score by the posts. He’d been put in the gap by Handre Pollard, who was having a fine match after being recalled to the starting side. Cruden added another penalty shortly after and the teams headed into half time with the score at 7-6.
The All Blacks took the lead through a piece of magic from Read, who was lurking out on the right wing and was spotted by Cruden. The first five launched a perfect cross kick that was claimed by Read and cooly controlled until Richie McCaw arrived to take the offload and score in the corner. Pollard then drew the Boks to within one point with a long range drop goal but the All Blacks main concern was an injury to veteran Ma’a Nonu, who had suffered a suspected broken arm. This forced a reshuffle in the backs as Cruden was replaced by Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith moved into the midfield. Barrett landed a penalty to push the lead out to four points but with ten minutes to go the Boks launched an all-out assault on the All Black try line in search of victory. Captain Jean de Villiers, playing his 100th test, spurned kickable penalties to go for line outs but the home side’s line could not be broken. An epic series of raids were repulsed and the ball was finally turned over and hacked into touch by Aaron Smith for the win.
Despite the loss, this was the Springboks best performance this year, but that will be of little consolation. Their set piece was superb, with a vastly improved scrum giving the All Blacks headaches and themselves quick ball to work with. Referee Garces allowed flankers Marcel Coetzee and Francois Louw plenty of leeway at the breakdown, meaning they could disrupt the All Blacks and gain some key turnovers. However, it was the lack of overall possession that cost them in the end. They really didn’t have any forays into the opposition 22 until the last 10 minutes and had to rely on some individual brilliance from Hendricks and fellow wing Bryan Habana to get something going on the ground. That said, it was a night for kicking and Handre Pollard did the job well. The All Blacks reminded everyone of their mental fortitude in the tense closing stage, tackles were made effectively and with an excellent degree of patience that the crucial turnover would come, but before that the win was built on some excellent work by the tight forwards in the ball-carrying department. Cruden probably won’t look back on this performance as anything special as some of his kicking was pretty aimless but he kept the ship steady enough and set up the All Black’s only try. The rest of the backs simply tackled and chased kicks for most of the match, however Julian Savea was an absolute standout when it came to taking the high ball and returning them with interest.
All Blacks 14 (Richie McCaw try, Aaron Cruden 2 pen, Beauden Barrett pen) South Africa 10 (Cornal Hendricks try, Handre Pollard con, dg)
Man of the match: Not often a player on the losing team gets this award but Springbok number 8 Duane Vermuelen showed what a beast he was by ripping into the All Blacks right from the kick off. When he pulverized Richie McCaw he showed the rest of the rugby world sort of acts they need to commit to have a chance to beat the All Blacks.
The next match saw the Wallabies take a win over a fast-finishing Pumas side at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast. It was a night for captains who also play open side flanker, as Michael Hooper went one better than Richie McCaw in the earlier game with two tries. The first came only five mites into the match off a break in midfield and it looked as though the Australians might have their way with the competition new boys. However, Los Pumas had other ideas and big winger Manual Montero glided down the left wing for a sensational try that reminded everyone that the visitors aren’t the easybeats they once were. Bernard Foley added a couple of penalties before the break as the game broke down into a scrappy affair due to the rainy conditions.
After halftime Hooper was at it again, Montero going from hero to zero after getting isolated on his wing and letting the Wallaby captain strip him of possession and jog off to score. Then it was wing Peter Betham, in the side for the injured Adam Ashley-Cooper, who found space down the right hand side to score in the corner and push the lead out to 29-13. Things looked down and dusted for Los Pumas but they woke up and hit back in a frenzied last 20 minutes with firstly a try to Marcelo Bosch, who strolled over after great lead up work by his forwards. Then Nicolás Sánchez put in a beautifully weighted grubber kick for Joaquin Tuculet to pounce on. Unfortunately, Sánchez couldn’t land the conversion and Los Pumas trailed by four heading into the last five minutes. Cruelly, they were in prime position to score what would have been the winning try when they were awarded a scrum five metres out but halfback Tomás Cubelli was pinged for not getting the ball in quick enough. Foley then tacked on a penalty to ease the lead out to seven and the game finished shortly after.
After their heroics last weekend in Perth it would have been ironic if the Wallabies had lost this one the way they beat the Boks. Los Pumas battled hard again and were accurate in the set piece as always, but handling conditions made life even more difficult for a team with precious little attacking weapons. So their comeback was all the more admirable given the adversity they faced. The Wallabies relied on the brilliance of their captain but will be concerned at how close they came to a shock home loss and will really need to be on their game if they are to avoid being Puma-feed when they travel to South America for the return match. One problem for them will be the troubled position of hooker, Tatafu Polota-Nau only lasted 40 minutes of his comeback test due to a recurrence of his ankle injury. However the biggest problem Australian rugby faces right now is getting people interested in the Wallabies, the woeful 14,000 crowd making this the lowest attended Rugby Championship test ever.
Wallabies 32 (Michael Hooper 2, Peter Betham tries, Bernard Foley 5 pen, con) Los Pumas 25 (Manuel Montero, Marcelo Bosch, Joaquin Tuculet tries, Nicolás Sánchez 2 pen, 2 con)
Man of the match: At 22 years old, Michael Hooper is already the captain of the Wallabies and performances like this are the reason why. Scoring a double and getting involved in everything, he defined the term ‘leading from the front’.
So while that win puts the All Blacks clear by six points on the table, the competition certainly isn’t over. They’ll have another massive battle on their hands when they head to the true belly of the beast, Johannesburg, on October 5th to face the Springboks. The teams get another week off next week, but here’s the way the points table looks:
Performance of the week: The last 10 minutes of the All Blacks/Springboks match featured some of the best defense you’ll ever see in a test match and showed why the home side haven’t been beaten for almost two years. Also this match showed why the fixture is the number one rivalry in the game.
Try of the week: Rumours swirl that Argentine winger Manual Montero is on the Western Force’s shopping list for next year’s Super Rugby comp and highlights like this are the reason why:
Idiot of the week: No reffing blunders, no streakers, no crucial missed kicks for touch? Hmmm, what’s going on this week?
The Rugby Championship takes a break next weekend so I’ll be bringing you another top 10 list for your enjoyment. Until then, enjoy your footy, wherever you are in the world.
LATE NOTE: Turns out Ma’a Nonu did indeed break his forearm, meaning he’ll be out for the rest of the season.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.