The most frustrating team in World Rugby continue to flatter to deceive.
Hopes were high after the Jaguares had taken Super Rugby by storm this past season but the step up to international level seems to have left them stuck in second gear.
A solid start against the All Blacks seemed to have suggested that Los Pumas would be ultra-competitive in this year’s Championship and but for a botched last-minute driving maul, they could well have toppled New Zealand for the first time.
In Australia they never got into their usual free-flowing rugby and were punished accordingly. Ill discipline was what ultimately cost them but the bigger picture showed that their most influential players were not controlling matches in the way that you would expect.
Pablo Matera and Nicolas Sanchez are two of Argentina’s key men and as their influence was dwindling, so was the performance of the rest of the team.
Saturday’s final game of the Championship was a disaster. The Springboks played well but there were red flags everywhere for Mario Ladesma to worry about.
The once feared South American scrum was ruined to rubble and all continuity in attack was lost.
They conceded 14 turnovers, 13 penalties missed 16 tackles and Sanchez himself was out classed and out muscled by Handre Pollard.
There is some serious rebuilding needed before the World Cup and if they get a dose of the same medicine this weekend in Pretoria against the same opposition, then their challenge in Japan could be over before it’s even begun.
END OF TERM GRADE – D-
It was a slow start to this campaign for Australia as they took a hiding off South Africa but that blame should not be laid solely at the feet of the players.
Michael Cheika’s selection of the back line was stubborn at best and suicidal at worst. It was littered with his old faithful’s that work hard but lack real quality and imagination. Bernard Foley, Dane Haylett-Petty and Tom Banks shouldn’t have been near the starting line up when you have the likes of Kurtley Beale and Christian Leali’ifano waiting in the wings.
Their fortunes started to change against Argentina when Beale was picked at full back, Leali’ifano was brought in to replace Foley and Marika Koroibete, unavailable for the first match, was brought onto the wing for Haylett-Petty.
The foundations were laid for the beautiful Bledisloe performance against New Zealand as quicker ball and added dimensions to their attacking were being added.
The final piece of that backline puzzle was slotted into place against The All Blacks. James O’Connor, the once bad boy of Australian Rugby, came in as an extra ball player outside Samu Kerevi and the pair complimented each other perfectly.
Up front, the second row and more impressively, the front row, worked harder than they have in previous years to allow Michael Hooper to do what he does best – annoy the opposition at the breakdown and slow down their attacking ball.
The red card handed to Scott Barrett obviously helped the Wallabies cause in Perth but you can only play what is in front of you and that is exactly what the men in gold did.
They were ruthless and just when pressure was being exerted on them, they came back stronger and with more intensity. I think they would have won had the teams both had a full complement of players on the field anyway.
Cheika’s men need to back this performance up this weekend in Auckland but the Head Coach must now stop tinkering with his line up and allow this team to gel. Pick the same players against their Old Foe’s again this weekend and don’t change the way that they played in Western Australia on Saturday night.
END OF TERM GRADE – B
It started with a win by the skin of their teeth in Buenos Aires and it only went downhill from there.
No bonus points, just seven tries, eight tries conceded and a negative points difference paints more than just a couple of pictures.
Steve Hansen has also been left with some serious selection issues as well.
The loss of Damian Mckenzie before the end of the domestic season is being further accentuated by Hansen’s trial of Richie Mo’unga at fly half and Beauden Barrett moving to Full Back.
Barrett looks dangerous from the back and adds an attacking flair but Mo’unga has been unable to replicate his Crusaders form in the famous black jersey.
They were seconds away from losing in Argentina and seconds from winning in Wellington but neither performance was convincing and they didn’t deserve to win either.
The performance in the final match of the Championship is the most worrying of all though. Australia tore them to shreds and the loss of the injured Brodie Retallick for this match turned out to be fatal.
Not only did his replacement get sent off but the All Blacks sorely missed a world class player and leader on the field.
Other’s didn’t step up to grab that mantle because this New Zealand squad doesn’t have the strength in depth that they have enjoyed in the past.
The fly-half position is one area for concern but the midfield is an even bigger one. Jack Goodhue isn’t the same player without Ryan Crotty playing at inside centre whilst Anton Lienert-Brown ran sideways more than he did straight on Saturday. Sonny Bill-Williams was clearly not fit enough to play against South Africa and his performance reflected that. Crotty needs to come back ASAP and get some game time under his belt or else the reigning champions’ defence of their World title could be in jeopardy.
END OF TERM GRADE – D
You can argue that this wasn’t a full Rugby Championship and teams were experimenting with their line ups but one thing you can’t argue is that South Africa weren’t the best team and deserved to pick up the trophy for the first time in ten years.
The first match was nothing but a training trot in the park against Australia, as they waltzed over them at Ellis Park but the biggest statement that they made in this tournament was a week later in Wellington.
In hindsight, the performance wasn’t always at a top level but the resilience and resolve that they showed belied that of previous squads. Not just Rassie Erasmus squads but squads over the last 5 or 6 years.
There was grit, guile and tenacity in this performance with a never say die attitude. Key turnovers on their own line and the repelling of All Black momentum was impressive.
The last-minute try to draw the match epitomised this newfound belief.
An early scare in Salta was quickly swept under the carpet. The Argentinians were swept under the same carpet 79 minutes later as forward power was matched with backline pace that led to a five try rout and round up their scoring average to just over 32 points per match.
The strength in depth that Erasmus has at his disposal now is frightening, right across the board.
There are two full international class packs, 3 high end scrum halves and depth everywhere else in the backline.
The one man that the Springboks cannot afford to lose is Handre Pollard. The Bulls fly-half is fast becoming the main cog in the Green and Gold wheel and should he become unavailable then the South Africans may be in bit of trouble.
Elton Jantjies is still not at a level where he can step in and run a match for the full 80 minutes, so wrapping Pollard in some cotton wool and then managing his game time carefully at the World Cup will be of paramount importance for South Africa to succeed.
END OF TERM GRADE – A