AUCKLAND, NZ – Ladies and gentlemen, the All Blacks are your 2014 Rugby Championship winners. Their third title in a row was sealed by a four-try win over Los Pumas in Buenos Aires, giving them the necessary bonus point needed to lift them six points clear of the Springboks in second. This means next week’s game between the two top sides will have no bearing on the standings, although you’d be foolish to think it isn’t going to be a typically intense match.
The first match of the weekend was in Cape Town, where the Springboks accounted for the Wallabies with a sensational last 10 minutes in which they scored three tries to blow the score out and keep their title hopes alive for the briefest of moments. The opening of the game saw the Boks advertise their intent early, keeping ball in hand for long patches and turning down shots at goal to chase tries. This paid off inside the first 10 minutes when flanker Marcel Coetzee was driven over from close range. Handre Pollard missed the kick but it was looking like it was going to be a long afternoon for the Wallabies, who had barely touched the ball. Centre Tevita Kuridrani had other ideas, however, when he made a clean break down the right hand side with the visitor’s first attacking chance. He found Adam Ashley-Cooper, who ducked under a high shot from Francois Hougaard to score. Bernard Foley added a penalty before Pollard replied in kind, meaning the score was 10-8 at the break.
In the second the Boks again dominated possession and territory, but were let down by some poor options on attack and some excellent work by the Wallaby forwards who gained some crucial turnovers. Heyneke Meyer went to his bench and they delivered, firstly Pat Lambie who knocked over a drop goal to put the home side in the lead. Replacement halfback Cobus Reinach then made the most of his short stint on the field, scorching down the right hand side to ultimately set up a try for his captain, Jean de Villiers. Even though the game was in the bag the Boks refused to let off, as Lambie gave the selectors something to think about by stepping through the Wallaby defense to stretch the lead even further. Then, just to rub it in, de Villiers crashed over in the left hand corner after the hooter had gone to push the final margin to 18 points.
While the Wallabies were in the lead for most of this match, this was a more than fair result. The Boks showed plenty of enterprise throughout and chose to run the ball from most opportunities, while the Wallabies seemed content to kick the ball away and try and tackle their way to victory. Matt Toomua’s radar was way off, with plenty of poor kicks finding their way straight to the Bok back three, while Foley was largely anonymous. With so much possession, it was simply a matter of time before the Boks grabbed control. The effort of the bench players was phenomenal and all completely justified their place on the field, particularly the halves combo of Lambie and Reinach. The one shining light for the Wallabies was Kuridrani, who looked threatening every time he got the ball in an 80-minute performance.
Springboks 28 (Jean de Villiers 2, Marcel Coetzee, Pat Lambie tries, Handre Pollard pen, Pat Lambie con, dg) Wallabies 10 (Adam Ashley-Cooper try, Bernard Foley con, pen)
Man of the match: Jean de Villiers was accompanied onto the field by his two young daughters to celebrate his recent 100th test match and they got to watch Dad put in a wonderful display. Not only did he score two tries but was also a commanding presence all over the field.
So the stage was then set for the All Blacks to take hold of the trophy in Buenos Aires, which they did in clinical fashion when they dispatched Los Pumas. After a week of changes to the starting team, the visitors shot out to a 13-0 lead after as many minutes and never looked back. First five Beauden Barrett knocked over a couple of penalties as Los Pumas got a bit too eager at the breakdown before a superb Israel Dagg offload let Ben Smith open the try-scoring. Shortly after Dagg and Smith swapped roles as the latter’s perfect pass found the former to dot down for his first test try in almost two years. Nicolas Sanchez pegged back a couple of penalties for Los Pumas, but the two teams went to the break with the score 20-6 and the writing was on the wall.
After the resumption it was more of the same from the All Blacks who unleashed Julian Savea down the left hand side on a Jonah Lomu-like run over the top of the hapless Manual Montero to take the score from comfortable to unassailable. However, they still kept searching for the fourth try that would lock up the Rugby Championship trophy for another year and it came with a mix of the old and new. Veteran flanker Jerome Kaino made a break up the left and fed Savea, who in turn offloaded to replacement halfback TJ Perenara, who couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first test try. Barrett landed the conversion for a perfect night with the boot, kicking six from six. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the home side though, they kept scrapping till the end and were rewarded with a try to Horacio Aguila just before full time.
This was very much a case of the All Blacks knowing what they needed to do and doing it perfectly. Tests like these can prove to be banana-skins time and time again but the All Blacks showed that their 22 test unbeaten streak is no fluke with a dominant display. It was by no means a classic test and it certainly wasn’t helped by plenty of ruck infringements from both sides. Los Pumas again will rue the fact that they didn’t even really believe they could win and disappointed a very rowdy 53,000 strong home crowd. Montero will be having nightmares from having to mark Savea and will probably want to work on his tackling if the rumors about him playing Super Rugby are true. Two rookie front rowers got game time in the black jersey, prop Joe Moody getting some good minutes and hooker Nathan Harris coming on at the end. Malakai Fekitoa made his elevation to the starting side count with a very good display at second five.
All Blacks 34 (Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Julian Savea, TJ Perenara tries, Beauden Barrett 4 con, 2 pen) Los Pumas 13 (Horacio Agulla try, Nicolas Sanchez con, 2 pen)
Man of the match: The man they call ‘The Bus’ parked himself over the try line once and played his hand in setting up the crucial fourth. Julian Savea now boasts a strike of better than a try a test match and, unfortunately for every other team in the world, just seems to be getting better and better.
Try of the week: Has to go to Julian Savea, whose ruthless use of Manual Montero as a human bowling pin brought back wonderful memories of a former great All Black who wore number 11.
Performance of the week: The last 10 minutes of the Springbok effort to rip the game away from the Wallabies should be watched by anyone who thinks being on the bench isn’t an opportunity to get out and make your mark on a game.
Idiot of the week: Someone in the Estadio Ciudad thought it’d be a good idea to shine a laser pointer in Beauden Barrett’s eyes while he lined up a shot at goal. Sad thing is, this isn’t even the first time it’s happened at the venue.
Well done to the All Blacks, who have sewn up the title with a week to spare. As I said earlier, next week’s match is still very important to both sides in rugby’s greatest rivalry. As well as this, the Wallabies will have to be very much on their guard against a Pumas side who will have targeted this game from the outset as very winnable.
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