Frustration for Boks, Pumas make a mark
It’s a shot in the arm for the new-look Rugby Championship to have Argentina make an early mark, and for them to have picked up their first points from the weekend's drawn match is an early vindication of their inclusion, but I don’t imagine Springboks fans will be seeing that as any consolation right now.
I can imagine the frustration as the Boks escaped from Mendoza with a draw….and I say escaped only because they got the benefit of the doubt from Steve Walsh over what some refs might have considered a deliberately collapsed maul deep inside their own inside half late in the game.
They did pretty well to fight back from a ten-point deficit, and were only a missed penalty or two away from winning, but instead are left with that most frustrating of results, the one where no-one loses but no-one wins either. To the Boks it’ll feel like a defeat, especially as it leaves them two points adrift of the All Blacks a third of the way through.
Having been to Argentina and twice seen the All Blacks score narrow, get-out-of-jail victories, and knowing they too have been held to a draw there (back in 1985), I had a feeling it was going to be tough for the Springboks, but not so tough that they wouldn’t win.
When the Pumas were admitted to the competition, with some help from the IRB, it was hoped from both the international and Sanzar boards' point of view that most of their games would be held in the capital Buenos Aires, where they would get maximum exposure for rugby in a soccer mad city.
But the Argentina Rugby Union wasn’t going to be pushed into that, knowing their best chance of success would come “up country” where, unusually for a South American country, rugby really is king, and in front of the fiery, parochial crowds, Los Pumas tend to grow another leg.
It can be pretty rugged up there….Ian Jones was telling me about an All Black game in Mendoza back in the early 90s that turned into a huge brawl. They were lucky to get out with their lives intact, let alone a win.
So anyone heading for Mendoza, Tucaman or Rosario, you have now been warned.
While the Boks did well enough to avoid defeat, a few concerns would have arisen.
They Springboks are an imposing side when they have the front foot, when they get momentum up, win quick rucks, and have their big powerful forwards smashing onto flat passes right on the gain line.
But when the Pumas denied them that go-forward, the Boks were left with a rather hopeful kick and chase game, and backline movement that tended to be more West to East than North to South, both of which played into Argentina's hands.
I would also suggest that for the first time, the Boks really felt the absence of the great locking duo of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, as well as the likes of Schalk Burger and of course Bismark du Plessis. You just can’t replace that tough, veteran attitude in a hurry. Those guys would have made the world of difference in such a difficult situation, and the new boys, for all their outstanding ability, are on a steep learning curve in the unforgiving world of test rugby.
But let’s just see now how Australia and New Zealand get on in Argentina before we make too many sweeping judgments.
The Springboks will strike the Wallabies at a low ebb in two weeks' time in Perth.
Without the admirable James Horwill and David Pocock, their forward pack lacks steel, and if Heyneke Meyer gets his selections right and Robbie Deans perseveres with the status quo, the Wallaby loose forwards are there for the taking.
HM might consider sacrificing Jacques Potgieter or even Willem Alberts for Heinrich Brussow just to get an edge at the breakdown, where the Wallabies seem to rely on their number 7, be it Pocock or now Hooper, to do all the work while Scott Higgingbotham hangs around the fringes looking for cheap shots.
The Wallaby backs, normally so dangerous, look out of sorts too, down on confidence and operating under no obvious game plan, and the All Blacks were able to hold them scoreless…the first time the Wallabies have been blanked since 1973 (v Wales) and in 50 years against New Zealand.
The Wallabies did turn in a more committed defensive effort, but the reality is had the All Blacks taken all their chances they could have won by 40 points or more. Some have criticised them for this, but if you take the “glass-half-full” approach to life, which I like to do, you would say that they are at least creating the opportunities, and the finishing touches will come.
They are trying to play a very high paced game, using quick passing among their big forwards to negate rush defences, and balls are being spilt, which will interest the intercept kings like Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana, but right now you would say the All Blacks have made a very good start without really hitting top gear.