The Rugby Championship kicked off last week and New Zealand stole the headlines – for all the wrong reasons. Here's a review of the action – including Australia's thumping win over Argentina – and a look ahead to this weekend's crunch games...
All Blacks All At Sea?
Rugby Championship holders New Zealand went down 26-10 in their 2022 campaign opener in Mbombela, slumping to their third straight defeat (after Ireland secured back-to-back Test victories in July). It's the first time the All Blacks have lost three on the bounce since 1998 and it heaps the pressure on head coach Ian Foster; the suggestions are that one more defeat will cost him his job.
The Springboks led from the eighth minute until the end of the game, thanks to a try by winger Kurt-Lee Arenas, some clinical kicking by Handre Pollard (who notched 16 points) and a late score by Willie le Roux. Their set plays were superior and they won the physical battle, exerting relentless pressure on their opponents.
Foster will be hoping personnel changes make a difference this Saturday in Johannesburg; he’s brought four fresh faces into New Zealand’s starting XV, including Richie Mo'unga, who'll begin at fly-half in place of Beauden Barrett. Props Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax also come in — they shored up the scrum after being introduced in the second half last week. Blindside flanker Shannon Frizell (who scored a late consolation try) also makes the team.
The All Blacks may take heart from the fact that South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber has moved last week’s Man of the Match, Malcolm Marx, to the bench for Round 2. The hooker forced four turnovers in Mbombela — a one-man destruction derby — so his absence should help the visitors’ possession stats.
Can the All Blacks stop the rot? They'll need to start the game well to stand a chance. That means keeping hold of the ball, winning at the breakdown and bossing scrums. But against the world champions' sizeable pack, that won't be easy.
Wallabies Wary Of Backlash
Despite leading 19-10 at half-time against Australia, Argentina found themselves on the wrong end of a 41-26 thumping at Estadio Malvinas Argentinas last week.
The Pumas, coached by former Wallabies supremo Michael Cheika, stormed the opening 40 minutes and even led past the hour mark with Juan Martin Gonzalez finishing off a beautifully worked team try that started in the home side’s own 22.
But the Green and Gold showed great character to come back, taking advantage of sloppy defending and indiscipline to score three tries (one a penalty) to claw their way back and silence the strong Argentinian crowd.
That victory ended a two-match losing streak and will do wonders for the confidence of Dave Rennie’s side, especially having lost the experience of Michael Hooper, who flew home 24 hours before kick-off due to mental health reasons. It also didn’t help that Quade Cooper suffered a ruptured Achilles’ tendon midway through the second half, which could threaten his chances of playing at next year’s World Cup.
For Argentina, defeat would have hurt. But there were plenty of positives; if they can cut out the mistakes — particularly in the pack — they have the quality to cause an upset. Something the coach outlined in his post-match analysis.
“The biggest area (for improvement) was obviously conceding three tries from the maul, so that’s something we really want to fix. It’s not acceptable,” Cheika said.
“We see that as our front line, and that was really disappointing as a team and it’s something we need to work on and transfer into the game.”
If they can get that right, a memorable upset could be on the cards this Saturday.