Saturday 24 February 2018 / 07:12 PM

International Rugby round-up

More questions than answers from scratchy Wallabies win

The 34-9 scoreline looks good on paper and was ample revenge for last year’s shock loss in Mendoza, but the Wallabies’ four-tries-to-none victory over Argentina was not the polished performance Michael Cheika would have been looking for.

Leading just 8-6 at halftime thanks to a Joe Tomane try, the visitors edged to a comfortable 22-9 advantage through the boot of Bernard Foley and an incredible 30-metre try off the bench by comeback lock Dean Mumm. Five-pointers to Tevita Kuridrani and Adam Ashley-Cooper inside the final three minutes rendered the result more emphatic than it perhaps was in reality.

David Pocock and Israel Folau were outstanding for Australia, but the post-match focus was on some of the team’s underperforming key men as the make-up of the Wallabies’ best XV remains murky.

Playmaker puzzle far from settled

Bernard Foley, so composed in the spot last year, failed his No.10 audition with a woeful goalkicking display and a so-so performance in general play. Matt Toomua’s night in the No.12 lasted just eight minutes, leaving the field with concussion, while his replacement Quade Cooper – patchy as ever against the Springboks last week – struggled for timing in the relatively unfamiliar position and was yellow-carded during the second half. Nick Phipps was solid at halfback and the battle with Will Genia shapes as one of the toughest selection posers for Cheika, but the five-eighths situation – with Foley, Cooper, Toomua, Matt Giteau, Kurtley Beale and Christian Lealiifano all in the mix – is his biggest headache.

Pocock’s marvellous renaissance continues

Starting in a Test for the first time since 2012, the inspirational David Pocock was once again magnificent. Dynamic in the loose and brilliant at the breakdown, the veteran is backing up a stellar comeback campaign for the Brumbies with equally outstanding form in the international arena. It’s almost cruel that the Wallabies have two of the world’s best No.7s in Pocock and Michael Hooper when they are lacking in several other areas, but Pocock has proved he is a must for the starting side when the World Cup rolls around. The temptation to start both former Test skippers in the backrow must be growing for Cheika after nondescript displays by blindside Scott Fardy and No.8 Ben McCalman against the Pumas.

All Blacks clinch Jo’burg thriller

Heavyweights New Zealand and South Africa turned on yet another Ellis Park classic, with the All Blacks running down their plucky hosts inside the final 10 minutes. The Springboks made a sensational start as fullback Willie le Roux streaked away for a 10th-minute try. But after seeming certain to take a 10-3 lead into the break, New Zealand’s No.10 debutant Lima Sopoaga made a break and popped a superb pass over the top for Highlanders teammate Ben Smith to cross on the stroke of halftime.

Young Sprinboks centre Jesse Kriel, who bagged a stunning solo try on debut against the Wallabies, punched through for a five-pointer just six minutes into the second stanza, but the All Blacks hit back immediately via a sizzling 25-metre try by hooker Dane Coles. Handre Pollard edged the home side 20-17 in front with a penalty, but South Africa couldn’t land the killer blow despite the sin-binning of Sam Whitelock.

An ingenious lineout move near the Springboks’ line saw Richie McCaw spear through and give the All Blacks their first lead for 64 minutes, and Sopoaga sealed the result with a penalty goal on fulltime. The attacking spirit of both sides was the standout feature of a wonderful Test between the likely World Cup semi-final opponents. It was just New Zealand’s fifth win in 14 Tests at the imposing venue.

Piatau, Sopoaga stake World Cup claims

Young guns Charles Piatau and Lima Sopoaga pushed their case for World Cup squad inclusion with superb performances in the Ellis Park pressure-cooker. The versatile Piatau was named man-of-the-match for his stellar all-round display on the wing, and is now a strong chance of being a back-three starter following the season-ending injury suffered by Waisake Naholo and Cory Jane’s ongoing problems. Julian Savea and Ben Smith (at wing or fullback) are guaranteed to be there, with the remaining spot looking increasingly likely to come down to Piatau and Israel Dagg.

Sopoaga, meanwhile, was impressive in all facets in a demanding setting for a Test novice flyhalf. While unconvincing against Samoa and Argentina, the legendary Dan Carter is seemingly assured of a World Cup berth, and the versatility of Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade makes Sopoaga’s path to the World Cup a tough one. But on the strength of his debut, the composed 24-year-old may ultimately be the best starting option in the key role – and at the very least, Steve Hansen and co. will be crunching the number to squeeze him into the 31-man squad somewhere.  

De Jager and Kriel headline gallant Boks’ new breed

Despite another gut-wrenching loss after leading in the latter stages, South Africa’s World Cup campaign is looking bright. The relatively inexperienced Springboks line-up matched the All Blacks every step of the way and dominated long periods of a gruelling contest. Lock Lood de Jager, just 22, was magnificent deputising for injured veteran Victor Matfield, overshadowing Brodie Retallick, who is widely regarded as the world’s best in the position.

The hard-running Jesse Kriel is shaping as an extremely potent attacking weapon at centre. The 21-year-old produced his second game-breaking try in as many weeks – both coming in the early minutes of the second half – and his midfield combination with fellow tyro Damian de Allende is progressing nicely.

Pacific heavyweights in high-scoring draw

Arch-rivals Samoa and Fiji staged a rousing encounter in the unfamiliar surrounds of Sacramento, California, with the Pacific Nations Cup clash finishing in a 30-all draw. Samoa trailed 27-10 at one stage of the second half, but clawed back to snatch a share of the spoils.

In other results, Tonga put a first-up defeat to Fiji behind them with a 28-18 victory over Canada in Burnaby, British Columbia, while USA produced a 23-18 upset over Japan in Sacramento.

[YouTube – ARU TV]

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Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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