AUCKLAND, NZ: The final week of The Rugby Championship turned out to be one of the most notable in recent history as both tests turned in shock results that will be talked about for a long time. The All Blacks 22-match unbeaten streak is over, ended in dramatic fashion by a dynamic Springbok side at Ellis Park. Over in Argentina Los Pumas finally gave their fans something to sing about with their maiden victory over Australia. A couple of great games, a big comeback, a sensational finish and (of course) a little bit of controversy, the last round had it all.
The action started at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in front of a passionate 64,000 strong crowd and saw the Springboks carve another notch in their win column against their oldest and greatest foes. The All Blacks came in to this as recently crowned Rugby Championship winners, but it was the Boks that breathed fire from the opening kickoff, signaling their intention to run the ball and dominate possession. Handre Pollard hooked an early penalty attempt wide, but that would be the last mistake he’d make all day. The only time the All Blacks had the ball in the opening quarter they managed to manufacture a penalty which was slotted from long range by Beauden Barrett. The Boks then struck back with a try that would have to be a front-runner for the best of 2014, a quick turnover in their own 22 was worked wide to to Jan Serfontein, who kicked through for Pollard to regather and feed Francois Hougaard, who sprinted 30 metres to score under the posts. Shortly after Pollard helped himself to a try, getting on the outside of some All Black tight forwards who had been forced to defend in midfield after some great work down the right hand side by Bryan Habana. Malakai Fekitoa then scored his first test try after the All Blacks were forced to rely on the brilliance of Julian Savea. The big winger got the ball off a disintegrating All Black scrum and then regathered his own kick to set up quick ball for his second five to take advantage of. However, the 20-year old Springbok first five then showed why he’s so highly rated by the national selectors by smashing through the All Black inside channel defense from a standing start for a second try, making the score 21-13 at the break.
The second half saw no let up from either team in their desire to run the ball, but this time the All Blacks had a enough possession to turn the scoreline around. They made hard work of it, though, conceding another penalty and having to wait until the 60th minute before Conrad Smith finally sliced open the Bok midfield and throw a perfect pass to Ben Smith, who stepped inside the cover defense to score. It was a rare bright spot for Conrad, who was having one of his poorest performances in a black jersey. However, the comeback was now definitely on and looked to have been sealed when Dane Coles dove over in the left hand corner to give the All Blacks the lead. Crucially though, Barrett’s conversion drifted wide and meant the advantage was still kickable for the Boks. Pollard’s replacement, Pat Lambie, pushed a drop goal chance wide but then found himself in position to win the game after the TMO got involved due to a late swinging arm by Liam Messam on Duane Vermuelen. The Boks were awarded a penalty 55 metres out and Lambie calmly thumped it through, sending the crowd into a frenzy. After two final tense minutes the ball was finally turned over and the All Blacks almost two year run without a loss was over.
While it all came down to an epic kick to win, this was a fair result for the Springboks. They completely dominated the All Blacks in the first half and defended well enough in the second to stop a potential comeback from eventuating. In doing so they gave a clear blueprint to any other side wanting to get the same result, which is to chance their arm and chase tries, rather than go into their shell and kick possession away. This was highlighted by one kickable penalty turned down in favour of a line out in the first half, which resulted in Pollard’s first try. The All Blacks were guilty of coughing up too much precious ball, which meant they never really got anything going for a sustained period of time. Neither side was being helped by a rather over-officious Wayne Barnes of England, who was blowing the pea out of his whistle for the first 15 minutes. But they were helped even less by the shoulder of Duane Vermuelen, which was responsible for knocking out Jeremy Thrush just before halftime. Already in as a replacement for Brodie Rettalick, Thrush didn’t return to the field, meaning flanker Steven Luatua had to play lock for the entire second half. Another notable injury that severely disrupted the visitors was to replacement halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who damaged his knee getting his kick charged down. This meant regular first five Colin Slade had to play halfback for the last 10 minutes. Messam’s late penalty will probably be debated but in reality it was a fair call, even though there wasn’t any malice intended. Those excuses aside, the All Blacks simply didn’t have the accuracy for long enough periods against a Springbok side that was quite simply the better team on the field.
Springboks 27 (Francois Hougaard, Handre Pollard 2 tries, Handre Pollard 3 con, pen, Pat Lambie pen) All Blacks 25 (Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith, Dane Coles tries, Beauden Barrett 2 con, 2 pen)
Man of the match: Handre Pollard came of age in this match and showed why he could be the next superstar of South African rugby. He played fearlessly, hit the line hard and scored two memorable tries. While Lambie got the glory of the winning kick, it was built on the foundations of the man who started the game at first five.
Meanwhile Los Pumas pulled off the big upset they’d been after for the last three editions of The Rugby Championship by downing the Wallabies in Mendoza, however it wasn’t without a bit of controversy. Things started off well for the visitors, maybe a little too well and they lulled into a false sense that this may be a repeat of last year’s 50-point beatdown. Tevita Kuridrani continued his recent excellent form with a well-taken try down the right side after great lead up work by Israel Folau. This was followed by an extremely soft try to Scott Higgenbotham, the big number 8 getting a great short ball from Saia Fainga’a to score under the posts. However, Los Pumas regained their composure and put the pressure on the Wallabies at the set piece and gradually worked their way back into the game. They had to wait till just before halftime to get any reward for their enterprise though, when Leonardo Senatore was on the end of a 13-phase movement to score in the right hand corner.
Things got better for Los Pumas after the break, firstly Wallaby halfback Nick Phipps was sent to the sin bin after a team warning on ruck infringements. The home side turned his absence into 10 points, with a penalty and try to Juan Imhoff. The centre again found himself on the end of a patient build up that perfectly exploited the on-man advantage. Bernard Foley had a chance to lock the scores up but some scumbag in the crowd shone a laser in his eyes as he attempted a penalty goal, meaning he missed the straight-forward kick. Things went from bad to worse for the Wallabies when captain Michael Hooper got sent to the sin bin as well and Los Pumas stretched their lead. From then on it was a game of composure and finally the home team held theirs to record a tight victory.
While it was great to see Los Pumas have something to celebrate after three years of trying, questions really need to be asked about the behavior of their fans. After the same thing happened to Beauden Barrett last week and Aaron Cruden last year, the use of the laser pointer to distract Foley was disgraceful and actually had a bearing on the outcome of the game. Had Foley got that kick the result may well have been very different. In saying that, the Wallabies really let themselves down after a very good start. Perhaps the drama during the week finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of confidence, coach Ewen McKenzie will be nervously awaiting his end-of-year review and hoping their northern hemisphere tour doesn’t have any slip-ups like this. Los Pumas played a smart, disciplined game and made the most of the two sinbinnings in their favour. The final whistle saw fireworks let off around the stadium, let’s hope it’s no another three years before the fuse is lit on them again.
Los Pumas 21 (Leanardo Senatore, Juan Imhoff tries, Nicolas Sanchez 3 pen, con) Wallabies 17 (Tevita Kuridrani, Scott Higgenbotham tries, Bernard Foley 2 con, pen)
Man of the match: While this was a real team effort from Los Pumas, skipper Agustin Creevy needs to take some real credit for his leadership and decision-making in the crucial last quarter of the game.
There you have it, the 2014 Rugby Championship is finished. The final table looks like this:
Time for the weekly awards:
Try of the week: Francois Hougaard must have felt pretty good getting the glorious unchallenged jog to the try line after great lead up work by his centre and first five. This whole movement started back in the Boks 22 after a quick turnover.
Performance of the week: Both Los Pumas and the Springboks had memorable wins over more-fancied opposition, however the men in green get the gong due to the expansive way they went about it. Ellis Park is the most difficult venue the All Blacks play in and it’s because the Boks play like this when they’re there.
Humour of the week: I’ve renamed the idiot of the week award, because this guy is attempting to be bilingual and probably doing a better job than I could. Things starting going wrong for the Wallabies before kickoff when Argentinean tenor Marcelo Zelado gave a hilarious rendition of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, complete with a whole bunch of words he obviously just made up on the fly. Good on him for having a crack, English is clearly not his strong point and at least the Wallabies got a laugh out of it. Click here to see it in all it’s glory.
Hope you enjoyed my coverage of The Rugby Championship. Next up for the southern hemisphere teams will be their northern hemisphere tours in around a month’s time, of course starting off for the All Blacks in Chicago with their match against the USA Eagles. Keep an eye out for NZ Rugby 101, a new video series aimed at giving the average US fan an insight into the All Blacks.
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.