Monday, July 27, 2015

Argentina-9 Australia-34

Argentina v Australia Rugby Championship 3rxXWrb3ousl

logo post greenGiven the epic battle that took place in Johannesburg the same day it may seem odd for us to select this clash in Mendoza as our Monday writeup of the week, especially as it was a blow out.

Trust me, there was method in our madness...given we’re being all “glass half-full” here at HoR Manor this weather and we reckon Ireland has a decent shot of topping our RWC pool, should that come to pass our most likely quarterfinal opponents would be the Pumas so this seemed like a good opportunity to give them a decent look.

And if you were expecting a traditional “match writeup”, you may be disappointed, even though that’s what we generally call this weekly Monday offering.  The way we see it, between now and the World Cup, every match should really be viewed more with the tournament in mind rather than the actual 80 minutes in question.

But before I harp on their display in front of their home fans, I’d like to step back for a few paragraphs and look at the realm of test rugby in general...is it just me or is the game looking in particularly good nick as a sport these days?

I ask because generally when it comes to World Cup time there’s much discontent over some aspect of the game...remember the ELV’s for example? How could you not...the 80 minutes of garryowen tennis were getting too much to bear.

Over the past season as a Leinster fan I was probably too distracted by matters surrounding the coaching staff at the province to notice (actually there are more distractions at the moment but I’ll get to them later in the week) but after watching the opening matches of The Rugby Championship together with a couple from the Pacific Nations Cup I get the sense that maybe, whether by design or by accident, our beautiful game could be scrubbing up better than ever for the spectators.

The progression of defensive organisation at the highest level has brought a whole new realm to the sport - from setting a trawler net of tacklers across the field to forcing turnovers with better body positioning at the breakdown to choke tackles to my personal favourite targeted scramble defence, it is now much, much more difficult to get across that try line than it used to be.

But the attack coaches haven’t taken this challenge lying down, and while the up and under hasn’t left the game altogether, that too has evolved to a point whereby most decent teams only put one up when they believe they can get it back. 

Still though, the best way to stretch even what seems to be a watertight defence is to put the ball through the hands, and if the past few weeks’ evidence is anything to go by, this would seem to be the mode of attack du jour, with the odd sneaky pre-planned pass back inside onto a scything line just to keep things honest.

And it’s not just the backs expected to do all the fancy passing and running any more while the forwards trundle around the park huffing and puffing to every breakdown.   Springbok centre Jesse Kriel scored a try on Saturday with a superb line but it was matched by All Black hooker Dane Coles not long afterwards.  And in Mendoza we had David Pocock making serious yards charging down the touchline not because he just happened to be there but because often back rowers are added to the outside channels to help exploit space out there.

Maybe I’m being premature with my observation, and when we see the pre-RWC offerings of the northern hemisphere in the next few weeks the game won’t look quite so free-flowy and entertaining, but I retain hope that this side of the globe we’ve adjusted our playbook accordingly to meet and overcome what is bound to be a mighty challenge from the south.

All in all, my point is that it has to be good for the spectator, and I’m certainly enjoying what I’ve been seeing so far.  That doesn’t mean I’ve nothing to moan about when it comes to the game (I am a blogger after all) but these days I seem to be focusing more on the wider organisation than the actual Laws of the Game.  I’m not sure I can even remember the last time I had a whinge about the scrum!!!

OK - it’s about time I started harping on the match that makes the headline of this post, and since I want to put the spotlight on the Pumas I will deal with Michael Cheika’s Wallabies first.

Basically while a bonus point win looks great on paper and it makes the top of the Rugby Championship table look nice and close going into the Bledisloe meeting in Sydney on August 8, quite frankly I think Australia’s two victories in as many weeks do much to mask a series of challenges facing by the coaching ticket.

For me Cheika’s biggest headache is finding his right 9-10-12 combo, not to mention a 22-23 duo on the bench.  For me, assuming everyone is fit, I’d plump for Genia, Giteau and Beale with Foley and Toomua on the bench.  No, I wouldn’t have any room for Quade Cooper.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again...I’m a QC fan overall and the game definitely needs mavericks - I’m just getting more and more convinced that he is a liability to Cheika with each passing week.  The ill-advised behind-the-back-pass against the Boks, the on again off again move to Toulon, the failure to resist typing twitter tirades, and in this match against Argentina, shipping an absolutely pointless yellow card for a high tackle when his side had scratched out a 10-point lead away from home. 

None of the trademark Quade magic makes up for all of that in my book.  And what’s more, given the media shitstorm that led to Cheika getting this gig in the first place, the off field antics are the last thing he needs with a tricky Pool A campaign to navigate.

Then there’s the place-kicking, another shortcoming very well disguised by two successive wins.  Foley is probably the ideal “anti-Quade” outhalf but on Saturday in particular he couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo from the kicking tee.  They won’t get away with that against England, Wales or Fiji.

THEN there’s the front row.  Not sure how many times in test history a team has won by 25 points despite being mulched in the scrums from the kickoff (got better in the latter stages when the game was already won anyway) but this was definitely one of those times. 

Now don’t get me wrong, they’re strong in several key areas - back line moves off set pieces have been good, the Hooper/Pocock pairing seems to be one made in rugby heaven and Folau can definitely win a tight match for you.  And calling back the troops from the northern hemisphere (yes, even Kane Douglas, best of luck to him) seems to be the right move and Dean Mumm’s crash em/smash em try was a case in point.

Let’s just say that despite the fact the Rugby Championship decider is in Sydney, unless the Wallabies can fix some of the areas I’ve highlighted above, they could be in for a taste of the scoreboard medicine they just put on the Pumas.

But hey - like I said earlier, I’m here to harp on Argentina.  Short answer, based on this display, while I can see them finishing second in their pool, I can’t see them getting any further. 

To their credit they were also trying to get the ball wide quickly but over the 80 minutes it was clear there was a talent deficit throughout their XV when they stacked up to their opposition.  They did impress in some areas but not enough to make a difference on the scoreboard.

They really did have the upper hand at scrum time and as they showed the previous weekend against the All Blacks, they’re not too shabby at the lineout maul.  But for me it was the area of decision-making that was their overall undoing in Mendoza and at the heart of this has been out-half Nicolas Sanchez. 

Definitely a traditional 10 in the sense that he is a reliable place-kicker but in open play he just didn’t seem to have the nous to make the most out of the situation that was in front of him.  Or to put it another way, he would have done fine in green and gold on the night as there was enough creativity around him in the back line to compensate, but for the Pumas the paltry return of just 9 points at home rests partly with the Wallaby D to be fair, but it also rests with Sanchez.

In Augustin Creevy they definitely have a worthy skipper for the World Cup and he will definitely lead by example...though sometimes the example he sets (ie getting involved in the handbags) can distract him from dealing with the ref.

Lobbe is another leader they will be relying on - this wasn’t his best outing by a long shot and he was well overshone by Messrs Pocock and Hooper, but we can only assume he’ll improve and I’d have no doubt he’ll be back to his best well in time for a World Cup quarterfinal.

Overall, while the future seems bright for Argentinean rugby with acceptance into Super Rugby, for now they seem to be just that little bit too far behind the strides made by the game’s leading nations to get beyond the last 8 of a World Cup this time around.  

The four Wallaby tries in this contest will all look good on the highlight reels but in my book they say more about the hosts than they do the visitors.

But like I said, these past couple of weeks’ rugby have done nothing but whet my appetite for what’s to come.  The Rugby Championship takes a break next weekend so next Monday we’ll be going back to Ireland’s World Cup pool where we’ll try to assess the prospects of Canada who face Samoa this week in the Pacific Nations Cup.

Here’s to more slick passing & busting lines vs tough-tackling defence & quality breakdown poaching.  I can’t get enough of it.  JLP

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