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Talking points as New Zealand and Argentina bounce back in Rugby Championship

Talking points as New Zealand and Argentina bounce back in Rugby Championship

Thomas Gallo Rugby Championship

Through two weeks of the Rugby Championship, just a point separates first from last, with Argentina currently top of the pile and New Zealand bringing up the rear.

That in itself, would go against the competition’s history. Since Argentina joined in 2012, the All Blacks have won seven of nine editions, while Los Pumas have finished fourth eight times.

With four matches remaining, any combination seems possible on the final table thanks to bounce-back victories this weekend.

First it was New Zealand who shook off an almost unprecedented run of five defeats in their last six matches to beat South Africa 35-23 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. And that was followed by Argentina recording their biggest-ever win over Australia, a thumping 48-17 success in San Juan.

So with four rounds left to go, and everything to play for, here are the main takeaways from Round 2:

All Black forwards step up

For much of the first fixture between South Africa and New Zealand, it felt like Ardie Savea was ploughing a lone furrow in a pack that just could not compete.

The Springboks turned the ball over at will, dominated at scrum-time and hammered back every All Black carry.

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That was not the case at all in Johannesburg. Frans Malherbe, on the occasion of his 50th cap, was pinged on an early scrum, with neither team able to get on top in that area.

Ardie Savea makes a break

An early Sam Whitelock steal put the Springbok lineout under pressure, so much so that Joseph Dweba was removed after just half an hour.

And while Savea was again outstanding, notably with a couple of sensational turnovers at crucial moments, it was the support he got from his fellow forwards that allowed the likes of Richie Mo’unga and Rieko Ioane to thrive.

A word also for Sam Cane, under almost as much pressure as coach Ian Foster, but stepping up in adversity and chipping in with the opening try of the match.

Tactical decision proves a masterstroke

While we are on the subject of Cane, it was a bold move from Ian Foster to remove his captain with 12 minutes to go, immediately after the Springboks had taken the lead for the first time.

That came when Beauden Barrett was sin-binned for tackling Jaden Hendrikse off the ball, and down to 14, Foster and his coaching team decided to bring off Cane and put on centre Quinn Tupaea in his place.

Against a Springbok pack that seemed to be in the ascendancy, the choice to drop to seven forwards felt like a gamble.

But it paid off and then some. When Will Jordan called a mark from a Hendrikse box-kick, the first thought was to attack. He tapped and went, the ball was eventually spread wide to Rieko Ioane, and the centre back in his old role on the wing, carried the ball all the way into the Springbok 22.

From there, more good handling ended with David Havili scoring, Savea delivering the final offload, before Scott Barrett sealed it in style.

For a team under immense pressure, and a coaching staff under even more, the call to go with Tupaea for Cane was gutsy but ultimately it worked out.

Willemse now looks ready for biggest stage

A lot will be made of Lukhanyo Am’s performance, and the centre was exceptional, first at 13 and then once he moved out to the wing. On another day, he might have been the match-winner, with his stunning break from his own 22 and wide pass to send Makazole Mapimpi over all for nothing with the initial hole created by some blocking.

But Am’s talent is well known. What should please Jacques Nienaber from this weekend is confirmation that Damian Willemse (pictured being lifted below) is definitely ready for the very biggest games.

Damian Willemse Rugby Championship

It did not start as he would have liked, sin-binned after just three minutes when Ardie Savea – him again – had got away down the left, beating two men. Willemse did well to bring him down, but couldn’t get out of the way quickly enough and paid the price as South Africa scrambled for a turnover.

By the time he returned, Jesse Kriel had gone off injured, meaning that Willemse played the remainder of the match at inside centre. He has done a lot of that for the Stormers, and long-term his future may even be at fly-half.

He definitely has the distribution for it, as demonstrated by the beautiful, floated pass to put Mapimpi in for the Springboks’ second try.

Whether it is at 10, 12 or 15, what is clear is that Willemse is no longer an untapped potential, he is a Test match animal.

Questions over attacking kicking

It is easy to be clever after the fact, but a common refrain every time the Springboks lose is to question how often they box-kick in opposition territory.

With the likes of Mapimpi chasing kicks, it is a tactic that can bear fruit, and did so a week ago. But there are times when it feels like they overdo it, and that was certainly the case in Johannesburg.

The Havili try mentioned earlier came from a situation where South Africa had the ball near the All Black ten-metre line, up two points and with a man extra with eight minutes remaining. Rather than going through the phases and trying to drain the clock, Hendrikse put up a box-kick that Jordan claimed relatively comfortably, and from there New Zealand struck.

But it was not just Hendrikse. Herschel Jantjies replaced him with five minutes remaining and again, inside All Black territory, decided to box-kick. This came with South Africa now chasing the game.

There is clearly a place for putting boot to ball, France won the Grand Slam kicking more than anyone and South Africa won a World Cup with an exceptional tactical kicking game. But rugby is also about situational intelligence and there are surely times when keeping the ball in hand can work – as New Zealand showed.

Pumas solve second-half woes

Argentina have made a habit of collapsing in the second half of matches recently and particularly at home to Australia.

A week ago, a nine-point half-time lead turned into a 15-point loss, while the Wallabies’ previous visit to Argentina saw them come from 31-7 down to win 45-34.

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So when Argentina went in 26-10 up, there was no one writing off the Wallabies. The comeback may have been on if Jordan Petaia had been able to dot down early in the second half when he got over the line only to be stripped by Gonzalo Bertranou.

But in a much tighter second 40 minutes, Argentina were able to take a stranglehold on the game, before running away with it thanks to two late tries from Emiliano Boffelli and Tomas Albornoz to seal their biggest ever win over the Wallabies.

Gallo the try-scoring prop

Argentina have been famed for their front-rowers for as long as they have been playing rugby, but their scrum has lost some of its fearsome reputation in recent years.

While Francisco Gomez Kodela continues to hold the fort on the tighthead side, at the grand old age of 37, the wait for the successor to Rodrigo Roncero and Marcos Ayerza on the loosehead has been a long one.

It appears to be over now though, with Thomas Gallo enjoying another stellar outing. The Benetton loosehead grabbed two more tries, taking his tally to four in seven Tests. But it was more than that. Up against Taniela Tupou, Gallo was able to gain the upper hand in the scrum, and he was everywhere in the loose as well.

At 23, Gallo looks to have nailed down a starting role for Argentina for the next decade.

Australian struggles against high ball

The Wallabies have been hit by an avalanche of injuries and absences over the past month and a half, and it was inevitable that it would take its toll.

The back three of Petaia, Tom Wright and Marika Koroibete might be the long-term answer for Dave Rennie, but they have had little time to play together and it showed in San Juan.

Argentina scored four tries from either kicks in behind or up-and-unders, and had another chalked off in the first half. It felt at times as though every high kick would be recovered with a lack of communication between the back three and fly-half James O’Connor.

That should improve with more time together, but it is South Africa up next, and as this article has already laid out, they love to kick high more than anyone. If Australia cannot solve this problem immediately, they will be in for a long afternoon.

Valetini a shining light

One of the players who has been missing for Australia on this tour is Michael Hooper, who withdrew ahead of the first Test because he was not in the right mindset.

As well as his leadership, Hooper is also one of the most consistent back-rowers in the game, and in his absence, Australia needed someone to step up.

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No.8 Rob Valetini is a very different kind of player, but more than anyone in San Juan, he made his presence felt.

While it ended up being a 31-point defeat, there were periods where this game felt much closer and that was in large part thanks to Valetini’s carrying.

He set up Australia’s opening try for James Slipper and a burst soon after almost had O’Connor in for a second, only for a dangerous clearout to see it called back.

Valetini kept plugging away throughout, and while the exact make-up of the Australian back row in the short and longer term may be in flux, there is no question that Valetini has to be a part of it.


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