Rugby Championship Round 1: Some World Cup cases enhanced, others hurt


South Africa eventually ran out comfortable bonus point winners on the scoreboard against Australia at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg on Saturday, but the Springboks and even their most one-eyed fans know this was a result that could easily have gone the other way for all that they were the better team.

Who knows how the game goes if Samu Kerevi's offload to Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the first half is flat not forward - and let's not kid ourselves that it was "adjudged to have gone forwards" in a manner that casts unnecessary doubt on the decision of New Zealand TMO Rowan Kitt - and Dane Haylett-Petty collects the ball to score a second try rather than knocking on over the line?

Then we come to the controversy of the game, in which referee Paul Williams yellow-carded Wallabies prop Taniela Tupou for what Kitt described as "clearly a shoulder charge to the chest" of South Africa back-rower Rynhardt Elstadt: Williams, meanwhile, told Wallabies captain Michael Hooper: "The guy is sitting there and he's come running in with the shoulder. It's clearly dangerous, it hit him in the chest after the whistle. Away you go."

The decision certainly proved key, as the Boks scored 14 unanswered points in Tupou's absence. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was unequivocal in describing the decision as "the wrong call", while Australian TV pundit Phil Kearns, a former Wallabies hooker, went further saying "it was a disgraceful decision, so many times we put referees that are out of their depth into these games."

Yet the South African television pundits, Victor Matfield and Nick Mallett, saw nothing wrong with the yellow card, and considered it to be no less correct than that issued to South Africa's Andre Esterhuizen for a high tackle on Tom Banks in the first half.

It remains one of the vagaries of rugby union that two different people can look at exactly the same footage and come to polar-opposite verdicts on the ensuing decision made in conjunction with a video official.

We assess two of the key storylines out of the action in Johannesburg.

Springboks have a back-up No. 9, or two, if not another first-choice halfback

Herschel Jantjies was selected to make his Test debut, with Cobus Reinach named on the bench to win his first cap in nearly four years, based on their form in Super Rugby and the Gallagher Premiership respectively. But it's fair to say they would not have been picked if Rassie Erasmus had confidence in Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl, his erstwhile back-ups to Faf de Klerk.

But Jantjies debuted as if born to wear the green No. 9 jumper - not No. 21 - and his two tries really were icing on the cake. His fundamentals were exceptional - service from set-piece and breakdown was swift and accurate, kicking game hit the targets - and that really is what he should be judged on. His support running was perhaps even more impressive, leading to his first try and the Boks' second, through Lood de Jager, while his second try was a direct result of his vision in noticing that Haylett-Petty had joined the breakdown ineffectively and Matt Toomua was in no-man's land on the blindside leading to a clean run to the whitewash.

Reinach also impressed in his 14-minute cameo off the bench, and fitness allowing, Erasmus now should have no reason for concern if de Klerk is injured; indeed he might, in a quiet moment, ponder whether his No. 1 wears the No. 9 jumper. Given this was among the coach's chief problems to solve, he now seems to be in a comfortable position.

It's the execution, stupid

Michael Cheika -- Australian TV pundit and Phil Kearns - can rail against the officials all they like, but doing so deflects from the good things the Wallabies did. Australia carried the ball strongly - Samu Kerevi in particular was good in recording a game-high 81 run metres from a game-high 18 runs - and Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley showed their combination at 10 and (replacement) 15 remains more dangerous than the other untried options in Cheika's bag.

The forwards held their own in the set-pieces, and bested their opponents at the lineout, and they were perhaps even the better outfit in the loose and with ball in hand.

But the little moments that make the biggest difference to the result went the way of the Boks: The hands that put S'bu Nkosi into space in the lead up to Herschel Jantjies' first try; the scrum-half's support of Pieter-Steph du Toit in the lead-up to the Boks' second try, and the inability of the Wallabies in the ruck to prevent de Jager from grounding the ball when he seemed to have been held up; the inability of the Wallabies to capitalise fully as did the Boks when their opponents were a man down; referee Williams might not have had to make his "controversial" decision if Tupou had held his discipline and not gone into the ruck late and without arms; and Australia's mistakes that saw them bomb two tries that could have made all the difference to the outcome.

Cheika was right to say that he was "happy that a lot of the things we've been working on we were able to bring out there... I believe we showed a lot of good signs tonight".

Erasmus, equally was right to note "this was not a world-class performance... the big takeaway was the performance of individuals."

The coaches now need their teams to step up again next week, when Australia host Argentina, and South Africa play New Zealand in Wellington; that happens, they'll each again be degrees of happy.


This was an opportunity lost for Argentina. Having reduced the deficit to just four points eight minutes after halftime, and dominated territory and possession thereafter, this was the Pumas' best chance of a maiden triumph over the All Blacks.

But a lack of patience inside the All Blacks' 22, and some brilliant cover defence on the part of the visitors, denied Argentina a history-making victory. This result will sting, but should only motivate Mario Ledesma's side for the remainder of the Rugby Championship and through to the World Cup.

Regardless, this was a performance that will have served as a reminder to both France and England of what the Pumas will bring to a tough Pool B. It certainly lacked polish, and featured just a 59 percent success rate in defence, but with Nicolas Sanchez back pulling the strings at fly-half and the world-class Pablo Matera threatening in the wider channels, the Pumas have the two pillars on which the rest of their game can be built.

Recalled from Europe at the discretion of Ledesma, Sanchez's return took some of the heat off scum-half Tomas Cubelli - which opened up opportunities for the No. 9 while the fly-half kicked smartly in open play and provided the high ball for Emiliano Boffelli's five-pointer.

But the fly-half will rue a simple missed penalty goal on 51 minutes that would have closed the gap to just one point, and given the Pumas the chance to kick for the posts, and the win, inside the final couple of minutes rather than having to chase five points from a driving maul.

Matera, meanwhile, just continued on from where he left on in the Super Rugby final. The Pumas skipper bounced off tackles, flicked his now customary offloads and nailed Ngani Laumape with a huge tackle to force a turnover, in another quality display of loose-forward rugby.

Despite the loss, the Pumas will head to Brisbane full of confidence and the belief they can once again roll the misfiring Wallabies in Australia. Having beaten Australia on the Gold Coast last year, Ledesma's men know how to get it done in south-east Queensland.

A 10-20 percent improvement across many of the game's core functions - particularly on defence - next Saturday, and the Pumas will be right in the contest and ready to land another telling blow ahead of Australia's World Cup campaign.

Fringe All Blacks a mixed bag in BA

It was an opportunity for some fringe All Blacks to stake a claim for a World Cup place, but none of Ngani Laumape, Vaea Fifita and Patrick Tuipulotu produced a performance that demanded a ticket to Japan.

Laumape can be reasonably satisfied with his outing in midfield -- a couple of turnovers on attack aside - with the Hurricanes centre grabbing one of two All Blacks tries while defending stoutly across the backline.

But his World Cup chances remain tied to the fitness of Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams. Laumape is likely to get another shot during the Rugby Championship, or in the return Bledisloe Cup contest in Auckland, so all may not be lost for his World Cup hopes.

The same can't be said for Fifita and Tuipulotu however after the duo failed to assert any real mark on the Estadio Jose Amalfitani contest.

Just a couple of years ago, Fifita scored one of the tries of the year in a 40-metre gallop to the line against the same opposition in New Plymouth. But he was unable to make any impact with ball in hand in Buenos Aires and added just a couple of tackles in defence.

Tuipulotu also struggled for involvement and was made to look like a virtual passenger in the huge shadow of teammate Brodie Retallick. With Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett bona-fide World Cup selections in the second-row alongside Retallick, Tuipoluto must mount a case as to why Hansen should take a fourth lock to Japan rather than a player who can cover both the back-row and lock.

The back three is the other area of All Blacks debate where debutant Sevu Reece and Jordie Barrett enjoyed solid outings in Buenos Aires. Reece looked dangerous when he found space to work with while Barrett was used as a battering ram in midfield, particularly off lineout ball, in a role his frame allows him to perform.

With Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith certain to fill two spots in the All Blacks' first-choice World Cup back three, both Reece and Barrett can be content with their efforts on Saturday.

With George Bridge and Braydon Ennor the other outside backs in Hansen's squad, the man who proves most comfortable under the high ball - something the All Blacks' back three at the weekend was not - could put their nose in front for bigger World Cup games.

Dynamic Savea-Cane combo both a blessing, headache

The Wallabies have long wrestled with their back-row composition and it seems the All Blacks will face a similar situation at the World Cup as Ardie Savea on Saturday reaffirmed his status as one of the game's most robust ball-carriers.

Playing at No. 8 in the absence of skipper Kieran Read, Savea continued to bounce out of tackles just as he did in Super Rugby while stand-in captain Sam Cane also enjoyed a fine first half carrying the ball.

But it's hard to see Hansen selecting both men in the same back-row once Read returns, which means either Cane or Savea will have to come off the bench.

It's a situation that presents a headache, of sorts, for Hansen and his fellow All Blacks selectors but one they will be happy to have given whomever drops to the bench will provide a huge injection in the crucial final quarter at the World Cup.

Just how Hansen treats the rest of the Rugby Championship will provide an insight into his World Cup planning, while the search for a No. 6 with the uncertainty that surrounds Liam Squire means the All Blacks' back-row will be one of the key selection storylines to follow in the run to the game's global showpiece.