Well, here it is,five games down and, if things go right, two to go. New Zealand takes on Argentina in the first semi-final of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Despite beating Argentina in this year’s Rugby Championship, Argentina did have both their first win against NZ in 2020 and their first win against NZ in NZ in 2021. There is also the memory of the All Blacks failing at this stage against England in 2019. Both teams come into the game with a single loss in the pool games. Argentina losing to England and New Zealand losing to France. In the quarter finals Argentina were quite comfortable in their win against Wales, whereas New Zealand had a very hard match against world #1, Ireland. So would Argentina step up, or would New Zealand recover from the quarter final continue with their winning ways?
In addition, for New Zealand, and in particular their head coach Ian Foster, the last couple of years have been very tumultuous. Since taking over the reins from Steve Hansen, the All Blacks have not always played to the level that their supporters expect. While there were some very real questions that NZRFU and Foster should have to answer, there was also a level of vitriol that was way over the top. Compounding all this was the process to look at the way forward after this RWC, with Foster electing not to reapply and Scott Robertson being anointed as the next coach well before the RWC tournament. Personally, I don’t think this was as big an issue as some may have wanted it to be. The decision allowed both the team and the coach to forge ahead with no distractions and where they could all focus on the present. It also ensured the team would be working together to leave a legacy with Foster going out on a high with the Rugby World Cup in his back pocket.
Both teams were well up for this game and the play in the first 10 minutes was intense with both teams going hard with the ball and making some great tackles. Argentina won the initial battle, earning a penalty that put them ahead, but New Zealand replied with a try to Will Jordan after 12 minutes. Argentina was trying hard and making some great ground with their forwards taking the ball up hard into contact and feeding the ball out to the backs once they had made some ground. New Zealand’s defence was as impressive as it was against Ireland and the Argentinians couldn’t find a way through. They were also getting on the wrong side of the referee and were giving away penalties at crucial times. At 30 minutes into the game the score was 15 – 6 and despite the New Zealand defence holding well, Argentina was hitting hard and playing very well. Then New Zealand struck hard with a great five minute period. First Shannon Frizell scored a try at 42 minutes, and then 2 minutes into the 2nd half Aaron Smith went over bringing the score to 27 – 6 with the conversion.
From there the match went only one way with New Zealand scoring three more tries and winning by 44 points to 6. Argentina never gave up and made some good ground at times, but they just couldn’t keep it going with mistakes at crucial times. The game was very intense and didn’t have the first scrum until after 29 minutes of play.
New Zealand was very clinical and quite ruthless when needed. They again showed how quickly they can transition from defence into attack. What makes it even harder for the opposition is that it’s not just one or two players, as soon as an opportunity comes the almost the whole team immediately transitions into attack. What this means is that when a player makes a break, he always knows there is support there with him. This allows them to have multiple options available to continue the attack. It also makes it very hard to defend against. New Zealand kept the scoreboard ticking over and this made it difficult for Argentine as they were playing catch up all game.
The All Black leadership has stepped up a lot in this tournament. The team seems to quickly get into synch with the referee, playing to his interpretations and instead of arguing or questioning him, they adapt and move on. This has the effect of ensuring that they get their fair share, and more, of the 50/50 decisions in a game. Both Sam Cane and Ardie Savea were very good in this area. They certainly push the envelope and get penalised for it, but the penalties don’t seem to come at crucial times or affect the overall play. They also step up well if they do lose a player and in this game they even elected to play with 14 once Scott Barrett’s yellow card time was up.
The All Black scrum has improved throughout this tournament and they have a good understanding of what the referees are looking for. The front row is playing very well and dominated the Argentinian front row, which continued when the replacements came on. The forwards played well with good ruck work that gave the backline a great platform to work off. The players all understand their role and also know each others jobs as well. The team has some great structures but are also able to adapt to what’s in front of them and react well in both defence and attack. Communication is good and the players aren’t getting caught up in the moment and forgetting what they need to do. It was great to see Sam Cane pull a couple of players back into line and set them on the right track again.
The Game Changer
The game changer was the two scores either side of half time. Up until then, despite being down Argentina was playing really well and putting in some great carries and good defence. However, you could see the team drop a bit after those two scores and they never really got back into the game.
New Zealand was very clinical throughout the match, stepping in hard when needed and taking the opportunities that arrived.
The Man of the Match/Stand out players
Jordie Barrett was named the official MotM and he was certainly my choice, even with Will Jordan scoring three tries. Jordie was immense all game with huge defence and some very hard hit ups into contact. He’s also distributing the ball well, reading the game and making the correct decisions under pressure. Both Frizzell and Scott Barrett (until he got carded for a dumb play) were good and made plays that sucked the energy out of the Argentinian forwards. Richie Mo’unga is directing play well and working in tandem with Beauden Barrett to set the plays up.
Argentina never gave up and both Lavanini and Isa carried well all game. Bertranou tried hard and made some good sniping runs off the contest.
Despite the big score this was a good run for New Zealand. Argentina put them under a lot of pressure at times and they had to work hard to absorb the pressure and then react when the opportunities arrived. New Zealand is displaying a lot of good leadership throughout the team and they are working well at keeping to their processes. Everyone knows what their job is and how they fit into the team structures. They do have good structures but at the same time are able to react well to the opportunities that appear. One of their biggest strengths is the way they can so quickly change from defence into attack with players immediately moving in to support the ball carrier. They also have good defensive structures and work hard to get off the ground and back into position after a tackle.
They still have some work ons. Dumb moves like the one that got Scott a YC need to go. Against another team this could’ve hurt them. The reserves stepped up well but there’s still a small period of time after they come on where things are unsettled, another team could’ve taken advantage of this. On the whole, though, they’re progressing nicely and will be looking forward to next week.