Post-2018 Rugby Championship; What was Learned?

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Post-2018 Rugby Championship; What was Learned?
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Franco Mostert of South Africa takes the ball in the lineout during The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South Africa Springboks at Westpac Stadium on September 15, 2018 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

After the dust has settled, any post-Rugby Championship analysis can begin. This will have been at the boardroom level, in the team sheds after the final matches, and in the sports club and bars of rugby fans across all countries.

Digesting the outcome can be simplified; New Zealand were only beaten once. Few teams could touch them in terms of attack but, what the Rugby World will have noticed is that ‘counter-defence can play on the mind of the World Champions’.

So when outside observers challenge the superiority of the All Blacks, there are two reactions. Many one-eyed supporters will say that the Wellington result was a blip. Others will point to the continued rotation as a weakness. That Steve Hansen has not settled on his top side, and injury could [and might still] ruin any continuity.

All these assessments have merit. The South African and South American fans will convey their impressions, while Australian fans will point to several victories as a pointer to ‘what is possible’.

In essence, there are many points to cover, as Last Word on Rugby perform a post-2018 Rugby Championship ‘breakdown’ team-by-team.

Post-2018 Rugby Championship; What was Learned?

Across the board, each team had hopes, objectives, and learnings which they identified prior to The Rugby Championship beginning. Who reached those? Did they tick the boxes, or re-schedule any changes to the team until after the November Internationals.

Why did results go one way or another? Not only due to a loss or victory but, overall if sides met the standards they have set, then – by their measure – it was a success.

Argentina – Some ups but too many backward steps

Finish place: 4th

Positives – the outside backs are one of the strengths of Los Pumas. The back three, plus the supreme skills of Nicolas Sanchez would be the envy of almost all International teams. They play with panache and often used set maneuvers from good build-up by their forwards.

Though, good build-up requires positive work at a constant level. For Argentina, that level goes up and down.

So while Sanchez can attack the line as well as Beauden Barrett at times – and a leading points scorer for his nation – his option taking at times beggars belief. A quick tap and chip directly into the arms of the visiting All Blacks, had his captain shrugging his shoulders in disdain. Although, even at times, Agustín Creevy makes decisions that fans are at a loss at to believe. So it is not just one player to single out, but 2018 was to be the season where domestic form from the Super Rugby side the Jaguares, was to transfer onto The Rugby Championship field. And while Mario Ledesma might be happiest with his defeat of South Africa at home, and the stunning result in Australia – he will still be disappointed. In the scrum; where he played for Los Pumas, as the side failed to compete.

And in the final loss to Australia; where a handy lead was given away by disorganized game planning, will be the single most important lesson to learn. It left their fans ruing lost opportunities and again, ending their season at the wrong end of the table.

Australia – still not the ‘real deal’

Finish place – 3rd

The once confident Aussie bravado is missing, and it seems at times that the Wallabies are treading water, but they are not yet a spent force on the International circuit. In 2018, they managed a win away from home in Argentina, that saved them from total failure. Their second-half comeback was near miraculous, and doubters need to pay at least some respect to the capabilities of the Wallabies.

It is just, that is not enough to be fully respected. Especially after the plummet down the World Rugby rankings, Rugby Australia has this week had emergency meetings with head coach Michael Cheika, to receive some confidence that the coach has the qualities – and the desire – to bring the ship back on course.

The discussions would have been explicit, as CEO Raelene Castle expresses how undercut the support of the Wallabies (and Australian Super Rugby Conference teams) is devaluing the future of the game.

Victories, good performances, and a good impression, is what will have been demanded.

Positives: Skipper Michael Hooper lays his body on the line. As does Will Genia. The senior men have all displayed positive actions, yet even the form of Israel Folau is still linked to his off-field exploits.

What can be countered on is that, some of the players selected have not yet reached their potential – like Taniela Tupou or Izack Rodda, and will all learn from the ups and downs.

The rebound in the final game was the highlight of the year, as well as the victory over South Africa in Brisbane. Yet, all that still cannot alter the long history of a lack wins over the Tasman. If that one fact can be dispelled during the third Bledisloe Cup test, or even better in the trans-Tasman test matches in 2019, only then will fan’s return to publicly supporting the gold jersey of the Wallabies.

Good results in November will also help to secure the future of Michael Cheika as national head coach.

South Africa – a huge leap in Faith

Finish place – 2nd

If one word could sustain Springbok rugby support in 2018, it would be Faith. The change in head coach was a leap in faith, as is the ratio of coloured players, however, 2018 is definitely going to be remembered for how that faith was repaid.

Repaid in full; even if they finished second. They finished the better of all the teams though – only losing the final encounter by the miraculous skill of New Zealand by a minimum margin. A margin which other International teams can empathize with.

Few words can entirely describe how it will affect the national pride that fans feel for the green and gold. But it was boosted by the surprise win in Wellington. It was the match where new winger Aphiwe Dyantyi etched his name into the rugby vernacular.

His ‘superman’ demonstrations supported the massive effort by his skipper Siya Kolisi and the new direction of the Springboks. Interestingly, Faf de Klerk looked to be cementing his place in the side until the strange South African rugby offshore-contractual arrangements meant he was forced to return to the Gallagher Premiership.

If head coach Rassie Erasmus had a list of accomplishments before August, then by October he would have ticked off at least 90% of them. Overall a better than expected result, with just the loss against Australia one slip which if corrected in the future, might see that opening Pool B match at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, being a 50/50 ‘clash of possible champions’.

New Zealand – Holding their status, while being tested

Finish place – 1st

It was not the undefeated season which the All Blacks group will have idealized. So used to holding the weight of advantage. In the last two years, they have been near incomparable. A history that the aura of the New Zealand rugby team can alter a team’s confidence before they even step foot on the field.

Yet on the single occasion where they were bested, it has taken away much of the side’s achievements. Least points conceded was one statistic that the All Blacks would normally dominate; and over Australia and Argentina, they carried on the winning formula.

But against the Springboks, each team scored 66 points. The parity of the 2018 Rugby Championship is the one learning that every opposition side has picked up on.

Steve Hansen wanted to use the fixtures to prove many points. Internally, he will feel both a sense of pride and, he will have niggling questions. The positive thoughts might be more prominent obviously (considering they claimed another TRC title).

Hansen said, the character of the All Blacks group came through.

In terms of performance, one bad kicking game does not ruin the Beauden Barrett mixture. His strengths are across the board – some may still be fearful of a ‘clutch kick’ at the RWC2019 may cost his team, though the accuracy of a Damian McKenzie or a Richie Mo’unga off the bench late in the game, is a security blanket which may see Jordie Barrett held in development until 2020.

All Blacks use Rugby Championship to blood new stars

Ardie Savea has shown is two positions, that he is a more mature player in 2018. Adding more options, it was the benefit seen when Kieran read was rested. More vigorous than Luke Whitelock, Savea and Akira Ioane might be the options used over the next five test matches.

Others, like Shannon Frizzel (see above) could be the new names that see game time after playing well over The Rugby Championship. The burgeoning power of Karl Tu’inukuafe, are assets which were uncovered in 2018.

But still, it was not perfect. And NZ rugby fans too often will only accept perfection. Maybe that is the lesson to learn. That fan expectation has to adapt to the new norm….an All Blacks team who can learn, from losing.

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All four SANZAAR nations will engage in Test matches over November, against Northern Hemisphere teams, in a true register of how the two ‘spheres differnce in play might best be exhibited.

Follow the results and match analysis, with Last Word on Rugby.

 

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images

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