The Rugby Championships.

Round Three

The Final Round of 2019.

The Rugby Championship 2019 is done and dusted. South Africa have taken home a meaningful trophy for the first time since 2010, and will take a massive confidence boot from this victory.

In a truncated competition that was oft denigrated as being nothing more than a warm-up for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with coaches experimenting with their line-ups and seeking answers to problematic positions of combinations, we need only look at the faces of the four coaches to know that these were critically important games for each of them. 

As we watched the three teams play their three fixtures apiece, the ever present camera showed us the faces.

Steve Hansen’s glowering visage was so hugely different to his more frequent slightly expressionless and bland response to the proceedings in a Test match. Steve Hansen is a worried man. (And he should be!)

Michael Cheika’s face was angry during the 1stround, seemed a little more relaxed in the second game, and by this third round Cheika’s face is one that was one of almost gleeful relief, he has been under some pretty severe pressure, and his team’s wins over Argentina and New Zealand will lift some of that load from his shoulders. 

The camera is a merciless intrusion in the coaches’ boxes during a Test, and throughout the series Mario Ledesma’ face was one of anger, then of utter disbelief, and finally sheer resignation as all his carefully laid plans were ripped to shreds.

Rassie Erasmus looked a happy man at the end of each of the games and especially so after the end of the tournament, but the moments he was shown on screen during the games showed a man who was concentrating fiercely on what was happening on the field, drawing diagrams, making notes, and talking to his fellow coaches all the time. His was the face of a man doing a serious job, and then pleasure at the outcome of a job well done.

These may have been warm-ups for the Rugby World Cup, but they were serious business for each of the coaches and their squads. 

What has each coach learned during the Rugby Championships?

Let’s start by taking a look at the tournament log at the end of the competition.

Each team played three games. South Africa won 2 and drew 1. Australia won 2 and lost 1. New Zealand won just 1, drew 1, and lost 1. Argentina lost all three games they played.

South Africa were the only team that banked try-scoring bonus points – 2 of them, one each against Australia and Argentina.

Argentina managed to bank 2 losing bonus points by losing by less than 7 points against both New Zealand and Australia.

The final points tally was South Africa 12, Australia 8, New Zealand 6, and Argentina 2.

Perhaps the most significant numbers are found in the next few columns of the log.

South Africa scored 11 tries, Australia found their way over the try line 8 times, New Zealand managed just 7, and Argentina scored 3.

More significant than all of these are the points scored against each team, and the points difference each team reflected after the tournament was over.

South Africa conceded just 46 points in the three games, with 20 points coming from the four tries they allowed. They managed to build a massive +51 positive points difference.

Next best was Australia, conceding 71 points and 10 tries, that is 50 points to tries, as they managed a positive +9 points difference.

New Zealand, probably for the first time in history, conceded more than they actually scored, scoring 62, conceding 79, and ending with a negative -17 points difference. They conceded 8 tries along the way.

Argentina scored just 39 points, conceded 82, and ended with a negative -43 points difference. The matched the All Blacks in conceding 8 tries.

If we read between the lines just a little bit, we can see that South Africa, after having taken a lot of flak for their lack of finishing in the last 12 months or so, have started to find their way over the tryline somewhat more regularly. Their defensive system is also working fairly well, conceding just 4 tries in the three games.

Australia found their way over the tryline against New Zealand, but struggled to do the same in their first two fixtures. However, their real concern must be their defence – they conceded more tries than anyone else.

New Zealand, usually the most lethal attacking team in the world, seem to have lost their try scoring edge. 7 tries in 3 matches is well below their lofty standards, and then somehow conceding more than they scored? They will be more than a little worried!

There is not much we can learn from the Argentinean effort.

We can dig a bit deeper into the statistical records and compare the four teams accordingly.


Attack

During the three games each country played, Australia managed 48 clean breaks, New Zealand 43, and South Africa just 32. Argentina managed just 25 clean breaks.

Carrying the ball stats again show  Australia on top with 424 carries, with Argentina next on 380, then New Zealand on 376, and South Africa on 317.

Meters with the ball in hand? Aussie made 2643 in total, of which 1444 went towards the gain line. The ball was carried sideways or backwards for 1199 meters. 

New Zealand carried the ball 2370 meters, of which 1336 were forward. The ball went backwards or sideways for 1034 meters.

Argentina made 1858 meters in total, with 1113 going forwards. They went sideways or backwards for 745 meters.

South Africa made 1792 meters, of which 910 were going forwards. The ball was carried laterally of backwards for 882 meters.

To these figures we must add the kicking stats to get a picture of how the teams used the ball in their possession. South Africa kicked the ball 75 times for a gain of 1998 meters, New Zealand 61 kicks for 1772 meters, Australia launched 50 kicks for 1614 meters, and Argentina 59 kicks for their 1557.

These figures tell us that South Africa and New Zealand adopted a game plan that included more kicking than either of the other two teams, looking to gain territory as well as negate the rush defence as much as possible.

Defence:

Turning to defence, as it is this aspect of the game that Jake White likes to tell us will win matches:

South Africa made 464 tackles and missed 63, for a very respectable 88% tackles success ratio.

New Zealand made 476 tackles, and missed 50, for a similar 88% success ratio.

Australia made 411 tackles, but missed 77, for an 84% success rate, while Argentina made 354 tackles and missed a whopping 81,for an 81% success rate.

We now turn to the effectivity of the defence. South Africa made a massive 55 dominant tackles in their three games, tackles that carried the opponent backwards in contact and gave South Africa the advantage in the tackle.

Next best were Argentina, with 39 dominant tackles, followed by New Zealand with 35, and then Australia with just 30. If we then look back at the figures for tries conceded, there seems to be a direct correlation between the aggression of the defence and the tries scored against it.

Which brings us to a directly related statistic – Turnovers conceded. In the 2019 Rugby Championships Argentina conceded 66 turnovers, Australia 51, New Zealand 50, and South Africa a mere 28. These numbers tell us much about protecting the ball in the tackle and on the ground immediately after the tackle. Concomitantly, South Africa and Australia both managed to pick up 15 turnovers on the ground, while New Zealand managed a surprising low 10, and Argentina were in single figures on 9.

Ruck statistics were pretty even, with South Africa winning the ball back 98% of the time, New Zealand with 97%, Australia with 96%, while Argentina were also right up there with 95%.

Disciplines:

A year ago we were bewailing the poor handling of some of the South Africans. In 2019 their handling has improved beyond measure, with just 41 handling errors. They were the best in the competition, ahead of New Zealand with 57 handling errors, Australia with 61, and the Argentineans with a whopping 70.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the handling error rates is that South Africa’s handling improved with each game they played. 

On field discipline was pretty even between all four teams, South Africa, New Zealand, and Argentina conceded just 27 penalties apiece, while Australia surprises by conceding just 21.

That is enough of the statistics, let’s look at the games played on Saturday, and what we have learned from those games.

Date: Saturday, August 10

Australia v New Zealand
 

Venue: Optus Stadium, Perth
Referee Jerome Garces (France)

It was in the 40thminute of a game that was still fairly closely contested at 13-12, when Jérôme Garcès, blew his whistle and stopped the action. He had seen Scott Barrett do something silly right in front of him, and acted immediately.

I would suggest that he erred in that moment. 

He should have signalled a penalty advantage to Australia and allowed play to continue – the Wallabies were on the front foot and were about to take the ball to the right into an area fairly thinly populated by All Black defenders and looked very likely to score a try.

Jérôme Garcès decided otherwise, stopped the game, asked the TMO to review the incident and then sent Scott Barrett off, handing the Wallabies a numerical advantage for the rest of the game and also awarding a penalty to Australia that was duly converted. The half-time whistle blew with Australia ahead by 16 to 12. If advantage had been allowed, that scoreline might have been at least 4 points more.

First and foremost, I thought Jérôme Garcès, got the call 100% correct with regard to the red card. At least, he was 100% consistent with the current ruling by World Rugby. Shoulder of forearm to the head or neck, and your game is done. 

Whether there is a case to be made for a yellow card, as much of the Kiwi media is suggesting, is moot. The reality is that World Rugby have sent a very clear message – contact with the head is verboten!

I read Gregor Paul’s comment that “Barrett can consider his red card one of the least deserved in history”or Patrick McKendry saying that Barret was off-balance and connected only a glancing blow on Hooper’ head area and that the moment was only a worthy of a yellow. (He also commented that “Jerome Garcias sure does like sending off All Blacks.”)

I also read Liam Napier suggesting that “Barrett may have deserved a yellow card at most for his shoulder charge”because you will find many such incidents if you slow every ruck down to a frame by frame review.

With due respect to the Kiwi hacks, that is the very least we could expect from them.

The reality is that Barrett was sent off for a no-arms, shoulder charge to the head and neck of Michael Hooper.

I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the consistency of the ruling.

Straight after half-time, in the 42ndminute of the game, the Wallabies are setting up camp on the All Black goal line, a ruck has formed and Rory Arnold charges in with his shoulder straight onto the head and neck of All Black prop Joe Moody. It was deliberate, it was done with considerably more force than the Barrett/Hooper collision, and Arnold clearly tucked his arms back and made zero attempt to wrap them around Moody.

And it was right in front of Mr Garcès,!

If Barrett got a red card, then Arnold should have seen one as well, just 3 playing minutes later!

Go and look at your recording of the game, it is as clear as daylight.

Playing a Test match with 14 men is disruptive at best, but when the red carded player is one of the two heavyweights in the engine room, the game becomes a bit of a nightmare for the rest of the forward pack. The All Blacks had started with an all-new loose trio and the combination was just starting to come into the game as a unit when the incident occurred, forcing a realignment of the loosies, with Kieran Read moving in to bind in the scrums at lock. End of loose-forward unity. (This had a bigger impact on the game than is immediately visible. The Wallabies did not dominate the breakdowns, despite the Kiwis being a loose forward short. Had the All Blacks continued with a full complement of loose-forwards playing in their correct positions, the second half might well have gone differently.)

Eight against seven in the scrums is also not a recipe most would want to follow.

Be that as it may, the Aussies thoroughly deserved their win. They had rattled the All Blacks in the first half and, once they had the numerical supremacy they started to bash away at the fringes where the All Blacks were always going to be a man short.

Marika Koroibete’s close-range try under the posts can probably be directly ascribed to the loss of Barrett, which meant that there was one less defender in the pillar/post role and the gap was quickly exploited by Koroibete when he picked the ball from the ruck and went over untouched.

Whilst the Wallabies are celebrating their biggest ever win over the New Zealanders, 47 is the most points any Wallaby team has ever scored against the All Blacks, they must be a little concerned about the 26 they, in turn conceded. Six tries to four is closer than it should have been.

There will be other worrying factors for Michael Cheika to concentrate on. In the first half the Wallabies launched 27 attacks, yet lost the ball in contact 10 times. You cannot keep coughing up one in every three balls you get hold of. Twice the All Blacks were able to counter-attack off those lost balls.

Then there was the truly silly decision making, decisions that amounted to sheer selfishness. Rugby is a team game, and the Wallabies let two very clear scoring opportunities go to waste when, first Samu Kerevi and then Kurtley Beale opted to try and go on their own for the score, instead of passing to a man in space. In both incidents they had men open on the outside and a clear run in to score. Both incidents would have resulted in a try were it not for that unthinkable selfishness.

Another major worry will be that Australia never dominated the breakdown despite having an extra forward throughout the second half. 

Defence will also need work. The All Blacks still scored 2 second half tries despite being a man down.

My other abiding memory from this game was Jérôme Garcès’ complete and utter lack of control of the off-the-ball and beyond-the-ruck play by both teams. Australia, because they had the better of possession, logically took the ball into the ruck more frequently than did the All Blacks, hence they were the major transgressors in this respect. Almost invariably one or two of their supporting players would clear opponents from the fringes of a ruck or breakdown when the opponent was not involved in that ruck, a clear violation of the Law, they would then continue past the ball and take up station ahead of the ball, obstructing any and all attempts to get close to the ruck by an All Black. 

Let me hasten to reiterate, BOTH sides were doing it, the Wallabies were the more visible because they had the ball more often.

Diving over the ball and sealing it off sometimes looked like a school of dolphins surfing on inshore waves it happened with such frequency. This too, was ignored by Jérôme Garcès, as was the offside line at the ruck.

The less said about players joining the ruck from the side, or even from the opponents’ side of the ruck, the better. James O’Connor was one who quickly realised that the referee was not taking any notice of side entry, and happily obliged by doing it at almost every ruck that he was involved in.

Neck rolls are supposed to be worthy of a yellow or red card. I counted at least 9 in this game, one very obvious one by the same James O’Connor on Anton Lienert-Brown that should have caught the attention of the match officials. 

Off-the-ball shoulder barges went unnoticed and unpunished, both sides were guilty, although Kurtley Beale’s effort on Jack Goodhue should have been seen.

There were plenty of late tackles too, again both teams were involved.

It was a poor refereeing performance generally, and not helped by totally anonymous assistant referees and a silent TMO.

Looking at individual players: I thought Nic White had a very good game for the Wallabies. He seemed to have found something extra and directed and managed play with some focussed confidence. He was the on-field leader of a Wallaby team that deprived the All Blacks of the two things they like the most – inaccurate tactical kicks that they can run at you, and quick turnovers that they can strike from. White’s box kicks were spot on, mostly, and his quick presence at the breakdown prevented the All Blacks from flooding over the ball and securing quick turnovers. (Of course, being a loose forward short in the second half did not help them much in this respect!)

Christian Lealiifano is surely the first choice 10 for Australia for the foreseeable future. He showed more inclination to run with the ball than Bernard Foley, and his tactical management was good. He is an intelligent rugby player who understands where the spaces are on a rugby field. 

Michael Hooper was his usual bustling bulldog around the field, but has developed a disturbing soccer-player grimace-and-appeal-with-arms-flung-wide tendency every time he is tackled or dragged off the ball. Sometimes it looks very close to being a dive!

Nobody else really stood out in what was essentially a team performance.

For the All Blacks I thought Beauden Barrett was good with the ball in hand, he always is, but that his defence was a little suspect when he could not hang on to Kerevi. He often brought a sense of sanity when the rest of the team looked a little lost. However, I also thought that Ben Smith was missed at fullback! Maybe the All Blacks need to rethink this dual-playmaker strategy?

I am having some serious doubts about Richie Mo’unga as a starting flyhalf for the All Blacks. As the game progressed and the pressure mounted, he started to cling onto the ball and try and do things on his own – he did not play the linking, playmaking role that he was chosen to do. Of course, he was being harassed by marauding Wallaby defenders, but he must expect that at Test rugby level and work around the pressure. He also struggled to play off the back foot. When Barrett took the first receiver role in open play there was more direction and certainty to the All Black game.

A final comment on a player: What is going on with Reiko Ioane? Has he lost the hunger and the intensity that made him an automatic first choice on the wing? He looks staid and slightly disinterested. For the second week in a row? Another Julian Savea?

From a Wallaby perspective, a great win.

From an All Black perspective, a very bad day at the office.

From a World Cup perspective? There are some northern sides that will be looking forward to playing the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Japan.

From my perspective, not really a great game of rugby – it was spoiled by the red card incident and the referee’s lack on control of those critical parts of the game that are depriving rugby fans of the enjoyment that open running rugby can provide.

Well done Wallabies, you deserved it.

Be aware that the All Blacks are hurting, next week could be massive!

Argentina v South Africa

Venue: Estadio Ernesto Martearena, Salta                
Referee Romain Poite (France)

When a well-drilled team has a plan, and they all know and understand that plan and their roles in that plan, and then they play to it, and they do so with focus, intensity, and serious commitment, and it starts to work for them, you can see the enjoyment in their faces as the game progresses. 

You could see that in the Springboks as they absorbed the early attempts at pressure by the home side, you could see the intent with which they took on the Pumas in the forwards and in the close in collisions. 

You could see the plan and intent in the rush defence designed to cut Nicolas Sanchez off from the rest of his back line. 

You could see the serious focus as the Springboks simply ripped the Argentinean game plan to shreds and trampled it into the proverbial mud.

They started this Test with the look of men on a mission – serious faces, serious intent, and serious commitment. Once they had done what Danie Craven famously called “subdue and penetrate” the enjoyment started to kick in. The mood lightened somewhat, the smiles returned to the eyes and the jittery rigidity of the body language in the first quarter became more relaxed and confident as the game wore on.

This was a team on a mission. Once they could see the light at the end of the tunnel and understood that they had control of the game, they started to enjoy themselves.

Let me be blunt – this was no festival rugby match played with sheer abandon. 

This was also not a perfect game by any manner of speaking. 

There were still plenty of rough edges and bumps and splinters and warts. There is still plenty to work on before the World Cup kicks off. But this was a game that perhaps represents the coming of age of Rassie Erasmus’ Springbok team? A team full of inexperienced youngsters balanced by a couple of seasoned veterans, and a team that has found its mojo.

Before this game there were many that questioned some or even all of the selections. 

Damian de Allende has a committed chorus of nay-sayers, others do not like Lukhanyo Am, or Makazole Mapimpi or someone else. Bongi Mbonambi has his critics, so too do Willie le Roux, Kwagga Smith, Jesse Kriel, Frans Malherbe, Francois Louw, Faf de Klerk, Frans Steyn, and almost all the others chosen to play in the team this week. 

Everyone is a selector, and everyone has their own favourites.

What Rassie Erasmus has done is build a squad with enviable depth in almost every position, filling some identified holes by recalling seasoned veterans such as Frans Steyn who can cover almost the entire back division save for scrum-half! He has created both depth, and a very healthy competitive environment within the team. Every player knows that he has to work hard to earn his jersey, and every player knows that he will be considered for selection.

Was this the “first team” that demolished Argentina, or was the team that took on the All Blacks in Wellington the real “first” team?

I would suggest that the Springboks are a squad, the whole of which is the first.

Imagine a prop forward who has worked his guts out for 50 minutes to try and contain the Beast Mtawarira, and then he looks up and Steven Kitshoff is smiling at him in the next scrum! A hooker who has had to try and match Bongi Mbonambi for 60 minutes, only to find Malcolm Marx joining the fray. Imagine facing off against Eben Etzebeth or Franco Mostert, and then on comes RG Snyman or Lood de Jager. Scrum against the unremitting power of Frans Malherbe and then it is Trevor Nyakane coming at you.

Faf de Klerk is replaced by Herschell Jantjies. Damian de Allende has run you into one big bruise, and on comes Frans Steyn?

The Springboks, 16 games into the regime of Rassie Erasmus, have evolved from the quivering broken mess that was the legacy of Heyneke Meyer and Allister Coetzee into true contenders for the Rugby World Cup in 2019. 

As I said right back at the beginning of this discourse, it was not perfect, not even close to perfect. But it was a team showing clear signs of some very real progress.

Measure them against the rest of the southern hemisphere’s heavyweights, the All Blacks, the Wallabies, and the Argentineans, and they are, right now, looking by far the most accomplished of the four.

The Doom & Gloomers, of which South Africa has more than its fair share, will still choose to point at the mistakes, the errors, and the weaknesses. That is their way, and they are welcome to it.

I see a young side that is playing with some serious intent, plenty of commitment and bravery, and a good measure of enjoyment.

And they have not peaked yet.

There is a plan to what they are doing, and it is not yet complete.

Can they win the World Cup?

There is still plenty of water that has to flow under innumerable bridges before we can even begin to think about that. But this coach, and this team are certainly working towards being serious contenders in Japan.

Before we look at player ratings, I want to make a couple of comments about what we saw in this game.

First and foremost was the enormous scrummaging power of the Springbok pack.

It was a powerful display. Yet it was not just raw power. If raw power were the only measure then Australia’s Taniela Tupou would be the best prop in the world, simply because he is the strongest of them all.

No, it is also about technical nous.

The Argentinean pack is coached by one of the most astute forward coaches in world rugby. Mario Ledesma knows all about the dark arts of scrummaging and the subtleties of shifting pressure points and angles of attack. In the second scrum of the day the Pumas were able to milk a penalty with a subtle retreat at the moment of setting the scrum. It gave the referee the immediate impression of the Springboks shoving early and his arm shot up! The Springboks immediately complained loudly, and he must have heard their complaints. He was not going to reverse the penalty, no referee in the world would do that, but he heard the comments, and took note. He did not allow the Argies another chance to try that one.

The Pumas tried to shift the angle of attack, they tried to slide across the face on the bind, they tried to change the tempo of the scrum and the put-in. They tried to push up and push down. They tried to bind tight on the one side and looser on the other, which can create all kinds of stability problems. They tried to suck the Springboks into walking around. Augustin Creevy even tried to hang between his props with his feet off the ground and his weight bearing down on Bongi Mbonambi. 

They tried every trick known to front rows and scrummaging coaches.

But the Springbok front row was equal to it all.

So much so that all the little subtleties tried by the Pumas did nothing more than draw the attention of the referee to their (mostly illegal) tricks, time and again.

The next thing worthy of comment is the Springbok defence.

During the three games of the Rugby Championships we have watched the Springboks shut down the Wallabies, the All Blacks, and now the Argentineans.

The defence has been very effective, and well controlled. So much so that they only conceded four tries in the entire series.

That is pretty good defence, in anyone’s book.

Of course there have been mistakes:- over-eagerness, a mistimed run, a forward getting mixed up in the backline press and the like, but the improvement in the defence alignment from one week to the next has been almost tangible. The change from the old-school out-tackling favoured by Brenden Venter and Allister Coetzee two years ago to Jacques Nienaber’s press or rush defence, with the shift defence as an option, has been impressive. Equally impressive has been the way the pendulum of the back three has improved with each outing in 2019. 

It is evident that the entire team understands the defence systems, and are all playing to it. The way they shut down the space around Nicolas Sanchez and Jeronimo de la Fuente was impressive. Sanchez was given zero opportunity to move with the ball, and his passes to the likes of De la Fuente, Moroni, and the support running Matera were always under pressure and scrambled. At one stage Sanchez abandoned the idea of passing to his midfield altogether and took to trying to pass the ball straight back to Emiliano Boffelli.

The scramble defence has also been refined as players not committed to the first line of defenders quickly and effectively set a second line and are ready to chase if the line is broken.

Of course there are the old-schoolers who still lose hair when they see one of the wings coming in off his line, leaving the wide channel exposed, but if they looked further they would see how quickly and effectively Willie le Roux and the covering looseforwards are closing that gap before it can be exploited.

Once again, it is still work in progress, but the progress is visible.

A third aspect worth commenting on is the quickness with which the entire team resets itself after a play. The backline players recover and get back into position quickly, with good communication amongst themselves and with their forwards. The forwards reset themselves in the closer channels with equal alacrity. They are ready to attack or defend much more quickly than was evident in the past. Players are understanding their roles and the team strategies and game plans. Communication is on a higher level that before. This is intelligent rugby and is not something that happens automatically, it has to be spoken about, practiced and polished, but it is evident that Rassie Erasmus and his coaches have been working on the quick reset. 

And a final comment: I cannot leave the issue of refereeing alone.

Romain Poite is not my favourite referee in the world. He has been involved in too many controversial moments and has made way too many game-influencing mistakes with the whistle in his hand. None more so than the “deal” he struck with Jérôme Garcès in 2017 when they contrived to hand the British & Irish Lions a drawn Test and thus a drawn series in New Zealand. I will not even mention the Bismarck du Plessis red card….

As I was settling back on the couch to watch the test my wife came through with a mug of coffee for me. She looked at the TV where the teams were busy with the anthems, and asked “Who is the ref?”

“Romain Poite”I answered, “and he is the one problem we have this afternoon, he is not really good enough to be a Test referee.”

After Saturday’s performance I may have to change my mind:

Eh bien M. Poite, je m'excuse. Sur la base de ce jeu, vous êtes certainement assez bon pour le match test de rugby.

 His control of the game was exemplary. He was strict and wholly fair in his rulings and his instructions. His communications with the players were out of the top drawer. He spoke Spanish to the Argentineans when he had to make sure they understood his decisions, and English to the South Africans. (One wonders why he and Duane Vermeulen did not converse in French?)

M. Poite recognised the Springbok dominance in the scrums and quickly saw through the Argentinean attempts to disrupt things. He did not allow Augustin Creevy the leeway he usually gets down on the ground as he slows, disrupts and disturbs the flow of the game.

He was in charge, and did not allow the game to deteriorate into the scramble of arms and legs and off-the-ball pulling and pushing that is inherent in the Pumas’ style of play. 

Merci Monsieur Poite

As I mentioned earlier, this was not a perfect display by the Springboks.

They were lucky when the match officials missed Pieter-Steph du Toit’s forward pass in the moment that he released Cheslin Kolbe for his try. 

It was an inaccuracy that could cost the team dearly in a tighter game.

Their clearance kicks from their own 22 often left much to be desired. Both Willie le Roux and Handré Pollard can kick the ball a mile, yet they often seemed to be just a half a moment too slow and thus hurried the kick, for a poor exit.

Faf de Klerk was clearly playing under instruction in the first half as he kicked the proverbial leather off the ball, and he cannot be blamed for following instructions, but a couple of his kicks were truly iffy!

The kick-chasing was sometimes a little less than spectacular, although the pressure placed in the receiver after the ball was taken was very good, there was very little contest for the ball in the air. Is this a safety first option decided by the coaches to avoid mid-air collisions, or is it poor timing by the chasers?

I am also concerned about the kick-off receipts, where Duane Vermeulen seems to be the designated receiver for deep kick-offs, with Etzebeth and Mostert looking to take the shorter kicks.  While the latter two were well supported and protected by their forwards, Vermeulen sometimes seemed to get a bit isolated. He was strong enough to hold the ball until support got there, but this might not work as well against a stronger team.

Here endeth my ramblings.

Let’s look at the individual players:

Individual Player Ratings:

South Africa

15 Willie le Roux, 6

Still seems to be just a bit short of his best form, and was not as visible in the attack as one expected. His clearance kicks were accurate, but shorter than we have come to expect. Made a couple of telling tackles, especially in broken play. The flow of the game was direct and midfield oriented, so he did not get many opportunities to join the line out wide where he excels.

14 Cheslin Kolbe, 8

If bravery has a human name, it is Cheslin Kolbe. Boy, this pint-sized warrior punches way above his weight! On attack or defence, and even when taking over at scrumhalf while Faf de Klerk had a ten minute cool down, his work rate was impressive. Carried the ball for 37 metres in eight carries. His 67th-minute try was just reward for a good day’s work, although a tad lucky as the final pass to him was forward. The added dimension of being a fall-back option at 9 simply adds to his value as a player.

13 Lukhanyo Am, 5

Very good defence, but still seems a little unsure of what his job is with the ball in hand. Just does not seem to kick into overdrive when he gets the ball. Too hesitant for Test match rugby!

12 Damian de Allende, 8

If there are still those with doubts as to this man’s value, then they were watching with blinkers on Saturday. He was very prominent on defence, quickly and effectively shutting down Sanchez and De La Fuente when they got the ball. Some very solid tackling, a couple of really dominant ones where he stayed in the contest after the tackle was made. His counter-rucking is exemplary.  A couple of very good carries, busting tackles and taking the ball up the midfield exactly as his coach ordered. Showed some deft handling, and was a constant nuisance at the breakdown, including making a crucial turnover early in the second half and right on the Springbok goal line. 

11 Makazole Mapimpi, 5

Seemed very hesitant at first, including knocking his first touch. Overran a short pass by Willie le Roux that had try scoring potential. Started to find his form as the game progressed and made a couple of good carries but still will not back his own pace with the ball in hand, persists on coming inside when he has the pace to run around his man. A good linebreak in the 62nd minute, and a well taken try.

10 Handré Pollard, 9

A masterclass by the flyhalf. 31 points with two tries and five penalties. Showed the value of his direct running and power in his legs to plunge over for his tries.  That directness and power made him a constant menace that the Pumas simply did not have an answer for. Defended well, controlled the pace and flow of the game with aplomb. Good distribution. Excellent long pass to set up Mapimpi’s try.

9 Francois de Klerk, 6

Over-eagerness at the breakdown when the team was under a general warning by the referee saw him take a ten minute rest, but that is the way Faf de Klerk plays rugby – he sometimes goes just a little too quickly for his own good. Solid on defence, quick to the ball, and great service to his 10. Some of his tactical box-kicks were a little wayward, but most were on the money.

8 Duane Vermeulen, 8

His communication with the referee was exemplary. Great captaincy. Superb under the high ball, and powerful in the carry. Physical in the collisions and calm and collected when needed. Some really good work at the breakdowns. 

7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 7

Does he ever have an off day? Yet another relentless, powerful, lung-busting 80 minutes as he chased the ball tirelessly. Eleven tackles in the rough stuff, and was part of the rush defence that shut down the Argie midfield, although it was sometimes his presence rather than the actual tackle (he missed four in that tactical play)  Carried the ball 9 times for 22 meters and gave the final pass that set Kolbe off for his run in to score. (Slightly forward, I would suggest.)

His durability was exemplified by the number of times he was visible in the final flurry of attacks as the game ticked towards the end. 

6 Albertus Kwagga Smith, 6

Made his carries, made his tackles, and might have seemed a bit invisible on the field. However, watch closely and you will see that he was involved in the dark and dirty stuff down on the ground and was the primary individual responsible for slowing the Argentinean ruck ball down. He seemed to stick to Augustin Creevy like a magnet down in the dirt. Also a major factor in protecting Springbok ball from the Argentineans trying to steal or slow it down. His cover defence into the space behind the wings was crucial.

5 Franco Mostert, 7

One of his better games for the Springboks as he seemed to relish the opportunity to carry the ball and run great supporting lines. Was huge in the physical collisions and made some really dominant tackles. His linebreak showed a pace we have not seen before, which helped set up Handré Pollard’s second try. A cameo on the flank after Duane Vermeulen left the field showed his versatility. (There were no less than four locks scrumming down behind the front row at that time – Etzebeth, Mostert, Snyman, and Du Toit are all starting lock forwards in any other team.)

4 Eben Etzebeth, 7

Yet another very physical performance. He is the powerhouse around which so much of the Springbok direct game revolves, taking the ball into contact with ferocity, while providing the muscle in support too. Made some massive tackles. An early linebreak that showed his power running got the Springboks onto the front foot. May need a bit of instruction about jumping recklessly into the tackle, which drew the ire of some of the commentators, but not the attention of the referee. Stopped the Argie maul time and again.

3 Trevor Nyakane, 9

His best game in a Springbok jersey. And probably the best game of rugby he has ever played. Massive in the scrum, he simply shattered his opponent, Chaparro. Made 15 tackles. Was huge at the cleanouts, and carried the ball with serious intent.

2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 8

I wonder if there is a Springbok who cares more about this team and the game than does Bongi? His passion is worn on his sleeve as he exhorts and drives his forwards on. He never stops talking, gesturing, encouraging and urging more from his team mates. He plays with the same passion too. Rewarded with a well-taken maul try. Good lineout throwing, powerful scrummaging, and great carrying and tackling. 

1 Tendai Mtawarira, 8

Another who shows his passion when he powers through an opposing scrum. He was massive in the scrums, and carried the ball well. Tackled with malice aforethought too. A very good day at the office for the elder-statesman of Springbok rugby. 

Replacements:

16 Malcolm Marx, 7(on for Mbonambi, 45th minute)

Did not get much opportunity to carry the ball as the job was being done by others, so he focussed on his support play, which was top quality. One great steal within seconds of joining the fray. Lineouts spot on too. Continued the powerful scrummaging started by Bongi. 

17 Steven Kitshoff 8 (on for Mtawarira, 45th minute)

It must be disheartening when you look up and the replacement prop who has come off the bench is the Big Ginger. Scrummed powerfully, carried the ball with serious intent, and tackled with enormous power. Has great hands.

His presence over the ball at the tackle and in the rucks is not far behind that of Malcolm Marx.

18 Frans Malherbe(on for Nyakane, 49th minute)

He is the quite man of rugby. Because he simply vanishes into the dark and dirty of the tough stuff his value is often underestimated by those who like to see flamboyance. His work in the mauls and at the rucks is of immense value. Helped the scrum maintain its dominance. 

19 RG Snyman, 6 (on for Vermeulen, 65th minute)

Ran good support lines, and injected himself in broken play but might need a bit more focus on the hard grinding stuff. Did his job.

20 Francois Louw, 6 (on for Smith, 56th minute)

Made a crucial turnover and kept the Argentineans honest at the breakdowns. Got a bit over eager at times. Solid in his support play.

21 Herschel Jantjies, 6 (on for De Klerk, 70th minute)

Not really enough time to be rated as he came on after the game was sewn up. Made one beautiful dart with the ball in hand, and gave a quick and efficient service. His nous in covering the wing channel was interesting to watch.

22 Frans Steyn, (on for Damien de Allende, 65th minutes)

He has great handling skills! A wonderful pick-up in the build-up to Cheslin Kolbe’s try showed what he can do. He needs game time though and still seems a little rusty. 

23 Jesse Kriel, 6 (on for Am, 58th minute)

Certainly more influential than the man he replaced, with some direct carries and meters. Went looking for work, which was pleasing to note. However, by the time he arrived the hard work had been done. 

Argentina: 

15 Emiliano Boffelli, 5

Was sometimes the sole defender between the Springboks and yet another score. Made 5 tackles and missed none, but had a horror handling the ball, with 4 handling errors. Made one good tackle break. Was isolated in possession by the Springboks which gave him no room to move. 

14 Santiago Cordero, 4

Scored a good try and defended well, with 3 dominant tackles in the 5 he made. Invisible for the rest.

13 Matias Moroni, 5

Not a bad day at the office under the circumstances. Made 3 tackle breaks in 10 carries, but was immediately shut down by the Springbok 2ndline of defence, so zero penetration. Missed a tackle but made 6.

12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 4

I guess he had a nightmare day, but only in terms of being pressurised right out of the game by De Allende and the ‘Bok loose trio. Made 8 tackles, but missed 3. Carried the ball 11 times, going nowhere mostly, and was only able to pass the ball three times, such was the pressure. Manfully tried to hold his ground, and managed one good run with the ball.

11 Ramiro Moyano, 4

An invisible day where opportunities were limited. Got his hands on the ball just 6 times, and was shut down immediately, although he had one good run. Made just 2 tackles.

10 Nicolas Sanchez, 3

A measure of the flyhalf’s day is that he made just 19 pass attempts all afternoon, of which only sixteen went to hand. This when he received the ball from his scrumhalf no less than 32 times and from others another 18 times. He was cramped for space and time by the flying Springbok defenders, and had no answer for the pressure, often being caught in possession. Avoided contact by staying out of the defence, making just 3 tackles all afternoon. His poorest display in a Puma jersey, ever.

9 Tomas Cubelli, 4

Tried manfully to get the ball away from the contact point, making 64 passes, but also 3 handling errors. Missed 4 tackles, and made 5. Was smashed back on the only carry attempt he made all afternoon. He was simply shut down by the Springboks.

8 Facundo Isa, 3

What is there to say about a man so much was expected from? Made 10 carries for 44 meters, conceded a turnover, made a handling error, made no tackles, did not pass the ball once, and was subbed at 50 minutes. 

7 Javier Ortega Desio, 4

Just another of the Puma forwards who was smashed out of the game by his opposition, although winning 5 lineouts, making 5 tackles, one of which was rated as dominant, carried the ball 4 times, but only making 6 meters. 

6 Pablo Matera, 5

An ordinary day by his own 2019 standards. Made a huge 14 tackles, but missed 1. Carried the ball 10 times, for a total of 35 meters. He was overshadowed by his opponents, and the weight of captaincy of a team under the cosh did not help.

5 Marcos Kremer, 6

About the most visible of the Puma forwards. He was huge in defence, making 18 tackles, and missing 2. Won 5 lineouts, made a turnover at the tackle, carried the ball 8 times. Did his job when all around him were faltering.

4 Matias Alemanno, 4

Invisible, mostly. Did defend well, with 9 tackles, and missing 1.  Took 2 lineout balls. 

3 Juan Figallo, 1

He gets 1 for running on very well. For the rest of the time he spent on the field he wandered around simply looking bemused by the power the Beast brought to bear on him.

2 Agustin Creevy, 3

Nowhere near as influential as one might have expected. He was overpowered by Bongi in the scrums, and shut out of the contest for the ball by Kwagga Smith, who cleaned him out time and again. Lineouts were okay.

1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. 1

Another who gets 1 for looking good during the anthems. Sang with passion and looked the part. And then he was confronted by a rampaging Trevor Nyakane and that was it.


Replacements: 

16 Julian Montoya, 3

Came on for Creevy, and vanished. Playing 30 minutes as he made 1 carry for all of 2 meters, missed a tackle, and made 7. That was his entire contribution.

17 Mayco Vivas, 2

Also got a 30 minute run, and did nothing worthy of comment. Made 7 tackles, and missed none. Penalised in the scrum.

18 Santiago Medrano, 3 

His 30 minutes saw him made 9 tackles and miss 3. Carried the ball 3 times , and passed the ball once. Penalised in the scrum.

19 Guido Petti, 2 

19 minutes of nothing. Made 1 tackle, conceded 1 turnover.

20 Tomas Lezana, 2

He simply got thumped. Got the ball 6 times and was stopped in his tracks each time. Made 2 handling errors, missed 2 tackles, was turned over twice, and passed the ball just once.

21 Gonzalo Bertanou, 5

Probably the best Argentinean back! In his scant 20 minutes he passed the ball 22 times, carried the ball twice for 22 meters, made a line break, made a tackle, but was also penalised once, turned over once, 

22 Benjamin Urdapilleta, 3

I do not think he will want to look at his stats. He made 2 handling errors, missed 3 tackles, was turned over twice, carried the ball just once, but did pass it hastily 10 times as the Springboks bore down on him. Seemed intent on avoiding contact. 

23 Joaquin Tuculet. 4

Weirdly, he was only given 18 minutes, during which he carried the ball 6 times for 36 meters. Missed a tackle, and made none. That was the sum total of his contribution.