Four teams entered last weekend with hope, ambition and dreams of lifting Webb Ellis. Four teams carried the hopes and dreams of their nations. Four teams who are from the Southern Hemisphere. Four teams who have demonstrated the squad depth, talent, pace and physicality to annihilate their Northern Hemisphere brethren. At the end of the weekend, New Zealand and Australia emerged from the arena as this year’s Rugby World Cup finalists leaving South Africa and Argentina to ponder what might have being. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action and how his pre-tournament pick Proteas fell at the second last hurdle.
Hail Hail New Zealand
New Zealand in seven days have demonstrated to everyone why they will go on and retain the Webb Ellis trophy next weekend. Their ability to change game tactics during games to exploit opposition weakness and style of play to achieve victories have being nothing short of sensational. The France massacre was built on fine running lines from a dominant back row performance providing fast ruck ball to expose an opponent whose defensive system was torn to shreds. The South Africa victory was built on the pack, execution of the pack fundamentals to absorb Springbok physicality and when the opportunity arose to hit the Proteas with sucker punches in the red zone. Caino’s try highlighted New Zealand’s ability to identify space and defensive mismatches. South Africa’s tendency to defend outside in was ruthlessly exposed as Kieran Read spotted a mismatch with Caino and the South Africa second row. The pass leading to this try was suspiciously forward but if the touch judge freezes to make a decision, you take the points with both hands. The second New Zealand try in the semi-final was a joy to watch, several pack phrases forced South Africa to sacrifice numbers outside and it was again ruthlessly exposed by the mercurial Dan Carter to pass to Ma Nonu who forced Pietersen to neither commit the outside runner or tackle Nonu. The lack of decision making from Pieterson allowing Beauden Barrett to dive for the corner with ease. It was a simple try but it was the manner in how New Zealand constructed the score after soaking up South Africa pressure during the Caino yellow card sin bin decided the game. It is the key difference between the Kiwis and everyone. The clarity of thought from the players in black jerseys compared to anyone else in the tournament is unmatched. South Africa in those ten minutes before and after half-time had a chance to put a dagger into the New Zealand team, five points up and a player advantage, they failed to add width to their play to stretch New Zealand who when presented with a player advantage stretched the Springboks to breaking point. Dan Carter at out-half continues to shine, his game management and kicking were outstanding in the semi-final, a day when the weather deteriorated with each passing minute. Carter’s drop goal in the second half was phenomenal and his speed of thought in all facets of play makes him the standout performer of this tournament. New Zealand advance to the final knowing that they have being tested thoroughly by South Africa, their defense, their pack and attacking lines were examined and they passed with flying colors. New Zealand focus on their performance while other are preoccupied with them. This is what sets them apart. The best rugby team to play in the game in the professional era. Next weekend should be very very special.
Cheika Managerial Masterclass
Take an exuberant Argentine team who have shown their ability to pass ball at will (Ireland will testify to that), take a coach who spotted planned training ground moves and you have a managerial masterclass which won Australia their final place. Simmon’s early intercept try rewarded Australia coaching network to identify how Argentina passer tries to engage opposition at the gain line before passing to a colleague in a deep position. Simmons read the play and the try was never in doubt as the second row’s pace resulted in the pivotal try of this semi-final match. It rocked Los Pumas game plan, their attacking lines became more tentative thereafter fearing more interceptions. Los Pumas game plan of playing open rugby played into Australia’s hands. Argentina forced to get back into the contest spilling ball and resultant swift Australia ruck ball allowing Foley to launch Ashley Cooper, Folau in space. Ashley Cooper will rarely score three easiest tries in his international career but the hard work of the pack to provide platform, Genia’s ability to pass ball were evident in all the tries scored by the winger. Argentina were a well beaten unit come the final whistle. Their set piece was fine but lost the contact area and the back row struggled to deal with the influential Pocock at the breakdown. The early intercept try was just what they feared. They were suddenly 14-3 down after the first quarter and with Australia complacency nowhere in sight, it was mission impossible. The tears in the Argentine camp started long before the final whistle.
I would have loved not to mention the match official performance but it would be wrong not to point out the sheer inconsistencies witnessed last weekend. John Lacey froze early doors; perfect position to see the Kieran Read’s forward pass to Caino so why not alert his match referee of a potential forward pass? To not ask Garces to review with the TMO was incompetency of the highest order.
The interpretation on clearing out players at the break down has to be reviewed post this tournament. When a referee sees no issue with a tackle but the TMO does, it is time for a frank discussion on what constitutes dangerous play. Victor Matfield’s alleged illegal tackle at the breakdown in the second half when Garces had awarded a Proteas penalty was another body blow for South Africa.
Wayne Barnes and the chop tackle penalizing was laughable yesterday when the match official turned a blind eye to the tackle during the tournament before the semi-final. Inconsistency has plighted this tournament and it is not a tournament where the officiating crews will memory with any great fondness. It drives team management, players and supporters to despair. Nigel Owens surely will get the final nod and a more assured consistent officiating performance should be produced.
Farewell South Africa
My tournament pick have fallen. They could not have worked any harder during this semi-final loss. The loss was decided on fine margins and the Proteas were victim of a number of key officiating decision but this was a small part of the defeat. The lack of discipline at times proved the fatal blow. Brian Habana’s yellow card before Barrett’s try bordered on the ridiculous and his sprint towards Carter before the Kiwi out-half started his conversion run-up after the first NZ try were damning. South Africa’s squad depth when it came to the crunch also was not of the quality of New Zealand. The last quarter on Saturday emphasized this as New Zealand game managed the contest to a conclusion. The back row and half-backs controlled the game with the pack instructed to keep the game at close quarters. Meyer’s game management and tactics were at times one dimensional and when they were asked to adapt their game plan during the Caino sin bin were not flexible enough to adapt and hit the decisive blow. Close but no cigar. South Africa leave this tournament with rebuilding the key. Matfield, Burger, Jean De Villiers, Brian Habana all leave stage left from international rugby after next weekend so the question is who replaces these rugby giants. Meyer’s future is uncertain as well so the word transition could be bandied around with the South Africa when the Summer international series commences next June.