Rugby Championship
Questions abound after intriguing opening round
John Mitchell
July 20, 2015
Waisake Naholo
Waisake Naholo© Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The All Blacks rested several first-choice players for their opening Rugby Championship encounter against Argentina in Christchurch, but were still able to claim a convincing victory.

There was a definite step up in performance from the hosts, which was to be expected in their second Test of the year. A new strategy I noticed from the All Blacks: All of their restarts were contestable, with the forwards tipping the ball on to Sonny Bill Williams on a second carry.

Furthermore, the team's attacking shape was very similar to the Hurricanes' in Super Rugby, which suited scrum-half TJ Perenara. The All Blacks played a great deal down the short side, with Perenara clearing the ball quickly, and defensively the home side boasted much more leg drive in the tackle.

Dan Carter makes a break
Dan Carter makes a break© Martin Hunter/Getty Images

However, there are patent areas of improvement for the All Blacks. Argentina's two tries emanated from lineout driving mauls, and New Zealand's defensive structure, with the hooker at the back, concerns me somewhat. They certainly have to become quicker before the opposition get set.

The All Blacks also found it difficult to clean out at the breakdown, as the Pumas had some big bodies in there that weren't easy to dislodge.

However, the Pumas neither employed line speed nor rush defence. As such, fly-half Dan Carter enjoyed a bit more freedom than usual, which allowed him to go the line on a more regular basis.

A rush defence will create a different challenge for the All Blacks, especially if the outside centre puts a bit more pressure on Carter by getting into his passing lane. That would force Carter to run back in.

Israel Dagg performed well at full-back, and while Ben Smith will return to face the Springboks at Ellis Park, Waisake Naholo's season-ending leg injury keeps the former in contention. Williams had a good game at inside-centre, but we saw that Ma'a Nonu is a 12 and not a 13. Conrad Smith is set to return at outside-centre, so it will be interesting to observe what role Williams will play. I still have doubts about winger Charles Piutau, as he dies with the ball and tends to get caught on his back. Up front, Jeremy Thrush's place in the second row may be under threat, as Luke Romano played well.

As far as the Pumas are concerned, they are asking for trouble when trying to run the ball out of their exit area using their small backs. I admire their approach, but I don't believe it will bring them success at the Rugby World Cup. They should rather play like that once they are in the opposition half.

Moreover, Argentina's scrum came off second best because the All Blacks started low and stayed low.

Jesse Kriel is tackled
Jesse Kriel is tackled© Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The big talking point in South Africa following the Springboks' after-the-hooter loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane has centred around substitutions. However, for me, the real issue is the Springboks weren't able to create sufficient attacking opportunities, and didn't do enough from turnover ball.

Apart from Jesse Kriel's excellent individual try early in the second half, what did the visitors actually create on attack? The Boks did score another try through Eben Etzebeth, but Handre Pollard's cross-kick should have been caught by the Wallabies and it was only exceptional aerial skills by Bryan Habana that allowed them to regain possession. I'm not so sure that was a good option by Pollard.

Wallaby flanker David Pocock underlined how a replacement can change a game. The Springbok replacements simply didn't have the same impact, but I don't believe you can blame Heyneke Meyer for that. He has to get the above players match fit ahead of the World Cup, and said replacements have a responsibility to perform in the last 20 or 30 minutes of a Test match and help lift the tempo.

Matt Tomua passes the ball
Matt Tomua passes the ball© Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The Bok starting XV was more patient on defence than the team that finished the match. However, The Wallabies' match-winning try was a result of the Boks having to go without the ball for such long periods of the second half. Of the last 10 or 11 penalties of the match, if memory serves me, nine were against the Boks. The question has to be asked whether that was because of intent or fatigue.

The positives for the Boks were the performances of Schalk Burger and Kriel. Burger showed he can serve as an able deputy for Duane Vermeulen at No.8, while Kriel displayed he could make the step up to Test rugby. Meyer will still be concerned with Pollard's erratic form, but should retain him at No.10 to afford him the opportunity to regain it. Willie le Roux also largely underwhelmed in Brisbane, with his erratic kicking out of hand gifting the Wallabies opportunities to counter-attack.

In terms of the Australian team, Quade Cooper didn't have a great game at fly-half. Mark my words; a lot of teams who generate quick ball will target his channel. Meanwhile, Matt Toomua was highly effective when he came on. I also noticed that the Wallabies hide Matt Giteau on defence during first phase - he stays in the 5m trams. Giteau, though, did well in his first Test since 2011. He's a magical little player. He broke past Pollard late in the game, and although the pass didn't quite get to Israel Folau, his strengths shone through. His influence and experience is invaluable to the Wallabies.

© John Mitchell

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