South Africa leads the Rugby Championship with two wins from two games, but Springboks fans are far from happy and are anticipating a loss in the next game.
That game is against the Wallabies in Brisbane in a week’s time – following the 1-week rest break in the RC. The Wallabies have no wins from two games, and sit at the bottom of the table.
Both Australia and Argentina are win-less, but Argentina is ahead because it has one bonus point. SA and NZ are on equal points, but SA is in ahead on points differential.
Springboks defeat Pumas
The problem for the South Africa Springboks is that their two wins were against the Argentina Pumas. The ’Boks won the first Test at home 73-13, then scraped home in Argentina last week 22-17.
Coach Heyneke Meyer summed up the feeling of ’Boks fans after the close win in Mendoza.
“I am obviously not happy,” he said. “It was not good enough. If you look at the guys in the change room, they are not happy … ”
He was thankful for the uninspiring win though, saying: “I believe if this had not happened, then we would have been in for a big hiding in Australia.”
Wallabies vs ’Boks
In Australia, Wallaby fans are as unimpressed with their team just as Boks fans are with theirs.
Before game one, against the All Blacks in Sydney, the Australian media predicted a Wallaby victory.
This was based largely on the appointment of new coach Ewen McKenzie, the former Queensland Reds Super Rugby coach. Though there were suggestions that the All Blacks were too old and too slow.
McKenzie started on the front foot, saying before each game the Wallabies would win. After the devastating first loss in Sydney there were calls for the sacking of almost half the side, including captain James Horwill, and star half-back Will Genia.
McKenzie stayed on the front foot, saying that while he was unhappy, he saw improvements. He made only one change to his side and that was forced.
The Wallabies were beaten comprehensively in game two in Wellington last Saturday.
New flyhalf Matt Toomua was again overly conservative and the forwards were dominated at the breakdown, which is a strength of both NZ and SA.
The Wallabies compromised themselves by running the ball from within their own 22, where mistakes are costly.
But coach McKenzie said the Wallabies would focus on attack. Perhaps the master coach knew they had little chance of beating the All Blacks, so unexpected attack may have been his most potent weapon.
Before Game 1, he said attack would be the first priority.
Though they attacked, the Australian back-line has gone backwards. The ball is slow from Genia; Toomua is slow and drifts across field, which starts the whole back-line drifting wider.
This causes a number of problems—several of them serious.
Calls to crack-down on foul play
The Springboks backs have the benefit of captain Jean de Villiers, who is composure personified.
Following the wins over Argentina, de Villiers made a plea for the elimination of foul play. The Springboks claimed that one player was bitten and another was eye-gouged.
“These are things, I believe, which are not part of rugby, and I would like them to be sorted out,” he said.
He added that players should have been sent off, the alleged offences were so serious.
For several years there have been calls for the sacking of de Villiers. But each year his no-nonsense, mistake-free play holds the ever-changing Boks back-line together.
Five Springboks will be flying to France to play in the Top 14 during the rest week. They are Morne Steyn (Stade Francais), Bryan Habana (Toulon), Juandre Kruger (Racing Metro), Gurthro Steenkamp and Jano Vermaak (both Toulouse).
This additional travel must have an impact, further favouring the Wallabies in Brisbane.
South African Rugby Union CEO Jurie Roux said it was a “one-off” concession to the four French clubs involved.
Adjusting to new laws
By beating Australia twice, NZ retained the trans-Tasman trophy, the Bledisloe Cup. Coach Steve Hansen said the strongest aspect of the victories was the ability to capitalise on opportunities.
Like all four sides, the All Blacks are adjusting to the new scrum laws, which are being trialled.
In the past, the All Blacks have adapted to law changes faster than most sides, so it will be interesting to see if that continues under Hansen.
Fourth-choice flyhalf Tom Taylor—a centre for the Crusaders Super side—fitted seamlessly into the All Black back-line, in his first Test. He unleashed the dangerous backs, shone in defence and kicked 14 points.
Captain Richie McCaw fought head-to-toe with young Wallaby flanker Michael Hooper, who came close to matching the master. McCaw dominated the breakdown and made 14 tackles, the most by any player.
Pumas vs All Blacks
Argentina centre Marcelo Bosch said the side was hurt by the big loss in South Africa: “…it was a terrible coming down to earth,” he said.
They fought back in Mendoza, almost winning. They now head to NZ to meet the All Blacks on Saturday week.
Captain Felipe Contepomi said the side was focussing on playing perfectly, rather than focussing on wins. He said the growth in team spirit following the big loss in South Africa gave him confidence.
The Pumas are not in the same league as the All Blacks. But after two tough games against the Wallabies, and with tough games ahead against the Springboks, the All Blacks might relax, unconsciously.
If they do, the Pumas will pounce. It’s not likely, but it is possible.
Peter Lalanabaravi is a rugby writer with over 30 years experience.