AUCKLAND, NZ – The rugby tournament whose name was obviously thought up by the same people who came up with the team names of the Blues and Reds kicked off over the weekend. The Rugby Championship, played between the All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas, has been abridged this year to accommodate for the upcoming Rugby World Cup. So this means each team will only face each other once, meaning every game is pretty damn important. This meant that this year’s first round was about a million times better than the corresponding opener last year, with the All Blacks shooting out a warning to anyone thinking of taking their World Cup title and the Wallabies and Springboks playing out a thriller.
At AMI Stadium, Christchurch: All Blacks 39 (Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Charles Piutau, Kieran Read, Codie Taylor tries, Dan Carter 4 con, 2 pen) Los Pumas 18 (Agustin Creevy 2 tries, Nicolas Sanchez con, 2 pen)
What was billed as Richie and Dan’s last hurrah in their hometown turned out to be a comfortable win for the All Blacks. Unfortunately for Los Pumas the worst thing that could’ve happened in the build up to this game was that the home side had played extremely poorly against Manu Samoa and therefore had a reasonably decent point to prove. From the kickoff the All Blacks dominated possession and territory and were rewarded with a couple of early penalties to Carter. Nicolas Sanchez replied with one for the visitors before the biggest cheer of the night erupted from the Christchurch crowd when Richie McCaw ploughed over after peeling off the back of a lineout drive. From there the All Blacks dominated the rest of the half, Ma’a Nonu coming up with a trademark piece of brutality to carry four Pumas across the try line on his way to scoring their second. Halftime saw the score at 20-6.
After half-time saw the All Blacks really turn on the blowtorch with a sublime 15 minutes. First Charles Piutau finished off a huge passage of play and some SBW brilliance, then Kieran Read simply picked up a loose ball that had been bullied loose by a relentless All Black forward pack and trotted under the posts. This meant the game was effectively over but Los Pumas weren’t ready for it to turn into an embarrassment. They struck back with two tries to skipper Agustin Creevy, both off lineout drives in the same corner McCaw got his. Their unlikely comeback was nullified by a try on debut to replacement All Black hooker Codie Taylor, which pushed the score to 39-18 as the home team simply controlled the ball to wind down the clock.
The All Blacks will be pretty happy with this performance, Carter was again solid at first five and nailed enough of his kicks to allay any fears about that department heading into the business end of the year. Richie McCaw put in an excellent game, as did Read and Jerome Kaino, the back row combination proving immense in the tackling department. The set piece was solid without being outstanding, however it’s foolish to take on Los Pumas at the one thing they are the best at, so spreading the ball to the likes of Nonu, SBW and the back three was the main priority.
To be honest, it seemed like Los Pumas were playing with an attitude of simply trying to keep the score down as soon as the game started. Nicolas Sanchez was horrible at first five, indecisive and a liability on defense, which the All Blacks recognized and targeted. The Argentines not only seemed to take forever to pack down a scrum and then held it at the back for even longer, which is a pretty pointless tactic when you’re on halfway and you’re wasting eight players’ energy for roughly 30cm of territory at a time. However, their lineout drive was very effective, Creevy definitely deserved his two tries after identifying a sizable chink in the All Blacks’ armor.
Man Of The Match: Sonny Bill Williams had a shaky start but played some of his best rugby in an All Black jersey in this test.
Replay Worthy? Yes, even though it pretty much went to script there was some good footy played.
World Cup Injury Watch: A devastating blow for debutant Waisake Naholo for the All Blacks, he’s out for the rest of the season with a fractured leg. Add in another injury to Cory Jane in the NZ Barbarians win over the NZ Maori means that there’ll be couple of wingers playing a bigger part in the All Black season than they originally might’ve thought.
At Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane: Wallabies 24 (Adam Ashley-Cooper, Michael Hooper, Tevita Kuridrani tries, Quade Cooper 2 con, pen, Matt Giteau con) Springboks 20 (Eben Etzebeth, Jesse Kriel tries, Handre Pollard 2 con, 2 pen)
It was another contentious TMO call that decided this one, with Tevita Kuridrani managing to burrow the ball over the try line after the hooter had sounded to give the home team an unlikely victory. Earlier, the Boks had made an excellent start to the game, kicking intelligently and patiently setting up a couple of penalty opportunities for Handre Pollard to convert. It took a bit of Wallaby brilliance to get them back into the game, Adam Ashley-Cooper slicing right through the Bok midfield off some quick lineout ball to score next to the posts. However, it didn’t ruffle the visitors feathers too much, Pollard putting a perfect cross kick over to the corner for Bryan Habana to tap back to Willie le Roux, who passed on to Eben Etzebeth to score. Pollard converted from the sideline to give the Boks a 13-7 lead at halftime.
Jesse Kriel showed that the Boks weren’t about to rest on their lead when he scored a sensational debut try to push the lead out to 10 in the second half. It stayed that way for a good portion of the rest of the game, only for Michael Hooper to close the gap to 3 when he scored in the 73rd minute. The Boks desperately tried to hold on but a renewed vigor from the home side saw a glut of possession in the Bok 22. The hooter sounded and the ball found it’s way to Kuridrani a couple of metres out, the big centre went low and had looked to have been stopped short but ref Nigel Owens (who had an excellent game, by the way) went upstairs to have a closer look. Just like Elliot Dixon’s crucial try in the Super Rugby final a couple of weeks ago, Kuridrani did indeed mange to make the ball brush a few blades of white painted grass, so the try counted and the Wallabies walked away with a highly unlikely victory.
I say highly unlikely because (and even the most ardent Wallaby fan will agree) they didn’t really deserve to win. The Boks were very, very good for large parts of this game, both of their tries came off very inventive play and were great to watch. Handre Pollard was guilty of a few jitters early on, one knock on bombed a certain try in the first 5 minutes and he hit the post with what should’ve been a regulation penalty, but he shook that off to direct play well. The Bok pack put in a physical display, but one would have to question replacing the entire front row after an hour after they dominated the Wallabies at scrum time.
The Wallabies’ sole first half highlight was the try to Ashley-Cooper, apart from having a hand in that Quade Cooper was pretty quiet at first five. So it was no coincidence that the injection of Matt Toomua to replace him was when the Wallabies mounted their fightback. Toomua had an outstanding cameo, intelligently distributing the ball and patiently managing the lead up to Kuridrani’s heroics. David Pocock also made a real difference when he came on, providing some much-needed physicality to the home pack.
Man Of The Match: Not often a player from the losing side gets this one, but Bismarck du Plessis was phenomenal at the breakdown. He managed to snag about half a dozen turnovers, doing the job of a world-class flanker while playing at hooker.
Replay Worthy? Absolutely, sensational game.
World Cup Injury Watch: Victor Matfield hobbled off after on 15 minutes and Marcel Coetzee had to be carried off late in the game, the extent of their injuries isn’t known just yet. Meanwhile Will Genia will definitely be out for a week at least for the Wallabies.
Next week sees the All Blacks travel to Ellis Park to hopefully write another chapter in their outstanding series of matched there lately against the Springboks, while Los Pumas will be looking to repeat their maiden Rugby Championship victory over the Wallabies when they class in Mendoza.
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