From the desk of The Masked Avenger – many thanks!
TODAY AND TOMORROW
Ready to get the rugby nosebag on? I am!
There are two exciting test match main courses being served on Saturday evening, preceded by a tasty tour match at lunchtime today. Plus there are Pacific Four and World Rugby Under 20 Championship matches galore laid out on the smörgåsbord over the coming days – more rugby meals than I can survey here, unfortunately.
Tonga v Australia A
Teufaiva Stadium, Nuku’alofa – 12:00 AEST, Friday 14 July
Referee: Dan Waenga (NZ). ARs: Marcus Playle and Mike Winter (NZ)
Tonga: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Israel Folau, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Fine Inisi, 10 William Havili, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Vaea Fifita, 7 Solomone Funaki, 6 Tanginoa Halaifonua, 5 Leva Fifita, 4 Ben Tameifuna, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Samiuela Moli, 1 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi
16 Siua Maile, 17 Tau Koloamatangi, 18 David Lolohea, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Sione Vailanu, 21 Manu Paea, 22 Otumaka Mausia, 23 Kyren Taumoefolau
Australia A: 15 Jock Campbell, 14 Lachlan Anderson, 13 Joey Walton, 12 James O’Connor, 11 Corey Toole, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Seru Uru, 7 Brad Wilkin, 6 Lachlan Swinton, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 Tom Lambert
16 Lachlan Lonergan, 17 Angus Wagner, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Ned Hanigan, 20 Harry Wilson, 21 Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, 22 Ollie Sapsford, 23 Josh Flook
Numerous questions spring to my mind. What do Eddie Jones and his henchmen expect or hope to see from Foley and O’Connor? What sort of shape and form is Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in? Why does Australia calls its B team ‘A’? We know Stan has committed to broadcasting the match, so why isn’t it in the schedule? The ʻIkale Tahi are an unknown quantity in 2023 and I hope they put on a great day for the fans in the sold-out stadium. There are some slightly faded stars in their squad who will relish their return to the international scene. Prediction: Australia A by 16.
Australia v Argentina
CommBank Stadium, Sydney – 19:45 AEST, Saturday 15 July
Referee: Jaco Peyper; ARs: Paul Williams, James Doleman; TMO: Marius Jonker
Australia: 15 Tom Wright, 14 Mark Nawaqanitawase, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Nic White, 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Fraser McReight, 6 Jed Holloway, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 David Porecki, 1 James Slipper (c)
16 Jordan Uelese, 17 Angus Bell, 18 Pone Fa’amausili, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Josh Kemeny, 22 Tate McDermott, 23 Carter Gordon
Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Rodrigo Isgro, 13 Lucio Cinti, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Mateo Carreras, 10 Santiago Carreras, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Juan Martín González, 7 Santiago Grondona, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Matias Alemanno, 3 Francisco Gomez Kodela, 2 Julián Montoya (c), 1 Thomas Gallo
16 Agustin Creevy, 17 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 18 Eduardo Bello, 19 Lucas Paulos, 20 Rodrigo Bruni, 21 Lautaro Bazan Velez, 22 Nicolas Sanchez, 23 Matias Moroni
Two sets of arses, bright red from last week’s spankings, go at it for pride and self-belief. I’m not at all certain Eddie Jones wants the Wallabies to win this game. He’s operating on a conceptual level within a strategic matrix that’s beyond my estimation. The exclusion of Nick Frost, Pete Samu and a reserve centre point to a subtly kinked agenda. For Argentina, González has moved from 7 to 8, there’s been some shuffling of the starting and finishing front rows and Sevens speedster Isgro makes his Test debut. Prediction: Wallabies by 11.
New Zealand v South Africa
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland – 17:05 AEST, Saturday 15 July
Referee: Mathieu ‘We play!’ Raynal; ARs: Angus Gardner, Pierre Brousset; TMO: Ben Whitehouse
New Zealand: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Jordie Barrett, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Sam ‘Kicker’ Cane (c), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Ethan de Groot
16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Tupou Vaa’i, 20 Dalton Papali’i, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Braydon Ennor, 23 Caleb Clarke
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff
16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Duane Vermeulen, 22 Grant Williams, 23 Manie Libbok
Eben Etzebeth’s father died on Tuesday. At the time of writing it’s not known whether Eben will play on Saturday or head home. No matter who plays, this is going to be a bashfest. There are two terrific backlines there, and I expect they’ll cancel each other out. Same for the ridiculously potent benches. If tries are scored, they’ll go to the hookers and 8s. There’ll be penalty goals. There’ll be bloody head bandages and at least one season-ending injury. Springboks by 8.
I’M NOT FINISHED WITH LAST WEEKEND, DAMMIT
So the Wallabies got pantsed in Pretoria, and their kick-it-away game plan seemed to invite more problems than it could possibly have solved. But there are a few more things left to be teased out of their 2023 debut. I’m interested to see if there was improvement on some of the chronic afflictions that have plagued the men in pumpkin in recent years. Things like a dysfunctional lineout, an unreliable scrum, a predilection for giving away dumb penalties and accruing yellow cards, poor choices when awarded a penalty and unforced errors resulting from poor skills. Let’s take a look at each of those indicators, review that kicking game and see just how bad poor Suliasi Vunivalu really was. I’ll also credit some good play and nominate the best of the Wallabies.
The lineout is nearly all good news. Dave Porecki threw 12 times for 11 successes. He hit Frost and Tom Hooper and at first, second and third man, he hit Samu at the back, he hit Slipper at the front and he threw over the top for a planned move. There was one throw that was tapped down on the Boks’ side and one untidy lineout win – I’m not sure if that was a bad throw, a bad jump or Bok interference (the TV director was busy running a replay and missed the throw). Jordan Uelese threw three times, hitting Valetini at the front (note that Valetini was never one of Porecki’s targets), Frost at the back (this throw was called ‘not straight’ by Ben O’Keeffe, but was fine) and Samu at the back (which was correctly called ‘not straight’). On the Boks’ throws, Nick Frost got up and twice pinched balls meant for Snyman. This performance was way better than any Wallabies effort of recent years. Well done to the forwards and their coach.
The scrum results were a mixed bag. The Wallabies fed seven times, coming away with two free kicks and five wins – but some of those wins were shaky, especially in the second half. The Boks were too powerful at times, but credit goes to Rob Valetini for always pulling the ball out before his pack fractured.
The Springboks fed eight scrums, coming away with clean ball three times and either a penalty or an advantage five times. Two of those decisions were debatable, if not completely wrong (one penalty went against the Wallabies for rotating the scrum when they had the upper hand, but it was clearly the Boks back-rowers who spun it, and Matt Gibbon was penalised when Vincent Koch pulled him down from below) but overall, there was no disputing the Boks’ superiority at scrum-time. The Wallabies were sort of okay; the Boks were very good.
I counted 16 penalties and advantages called against the Wallabies, and two of those were penalty try and yellow card combos. I’ve mentioned the two dodgy scrum penalties; there were two more awarded from scrums that were legit, resulting from power plays that broke the Wallabies’ front row.
It’s the ‘dumb penalties’ that hurt you, and the Wallabies did give away a few. Early in the first half, Hooper was caught offside in defence – it looked like he’d lost track of the previous tackle contest and never went back to get onside. Play was still under advantage for that offence when Koroibete tackled Moodie, hammering him in the neck (and it wasn’t the only time he pulled that trick).
In the second half, Samu Kerevi was penalised for tackling Willie le Roux, who had kicked a loose ball but was never in possession. It was especially pointless because le Roux’s kick went into touch after making five metres – he was never going to recover the ball. So the Wallabies should have had a lineout throw-in about 30 metres from their line; instead, Libbok kicked perfectly to the corner and the Boks had the throw-in on the Wallabies’ five-metre line. Result: rolling maul, penalty try, yellow card.
Vunivalu chased the subsequent kick-off and was penalised for somehow colliding back-to-back with Vermeulen in mid-air. And of course, there was Vunivalu’s penalty try and yellow card for a deliberate knock-forward around the 68-minute mark.
I’ll mention two penalties that I think O’Keeffe got wrong. In the second minute, Skelton was tackled and isolated; van Staden got his arms on the ball and O’Keeffe awarded the penalty to him. The call could have gone to Australia, because Orie was on his feet on the Wallabies’ side, tangled up with Porecki, who was trying to get over Skelton. Later in the first half, Vunivalu and Valetini got over Arendse, who was down with the ball after catching a kick. Reinach and PSDT dragged them past the tackle; they both stumbled and put their hands down. They were well clear of Arendse (who still had the ball) when O’Keeffe blew his whistle and called ‘Two players – hands on ground – second player – hands on ground.’ He was looking at the tangle of Vunivalu, Valetini, Reinach and PSDT, not realising that the ball had stayed behind with Arendse – or that Pete Samu had pounced and made a clean steal. So Vunivalu and Valetini were penalised for not supporting their weight at a time when they were not over the tackled player and not competing for the ball.
So how about poor old Vunivalu? Was he really that bad?
I counted 15 involvements for Suli. Seven get a pass mark – he made a tackle, caught a ball, caught a pass and made a few metres. Less happily, he played a part in Kurt-Lee Arendse’s three tries, which were made possible by greater team defensive lapses; Suli’s contribution was to tackle nobody.
His remaining five involvements were poor. In the 34th minute, Reinach box-kicked from his own 22; Suli was in a good position to catch the ball but fumbled it. Close to half-time, he scooped up a spilled ball and made a few metres, but was ankle-tapped from behind by Reinach. Libbok completed the tackle, Suli laid the ball back but sort of pulled it back in when White tried to pick it up, and O’Keeffe ruled it a knock-on. As mentioned above, in the 55th minute he chased a kick-off and contacted the catcher in mid-air, while facing backwards. Moments later, he received a loose ball after Nick Frost swatted it down from a Boks lineout throw. As the Boks charged towards him, he lazily wound up for a wide pass. PSDT knocked the ball out of his hands and Libbok walked it in for an apparent try, which was disallowed on TMO review. And then in the 69th minute, he got the ignominy of the penalty try and yellow card comb meal deal. Perhaps if he hadn’t slapped the ball down, Arendse would have got another try, but Suli really should have stayed on his man rather than moving towards Williams, who was already going down in McDermott’s tackle.
In retrospect, his night wasn’t the horror show that it appeared to be, unfolding in real time. But his performance was nowhere near test match or even professional second tier standard. The overarching and underlying problem was that Suli was rarely certain about where he was meant to be and what he was meant to be doing, and he didn’t understand his teammates’ roles either. He wasn’t connected, mentally or physically, to his backline partners or to the wider team.
A few other Wallabies made woeful goofs on a par with Vunivalu’s worst. Early in the first half, Tom Wright carried the ball in traffic near the sideline and it was easy for Esterhuizen to knock it out of his grip and over the line. After the Koroibete try, Nic White caught the kick-off and opted to take the ball into contact. Of course, the Bok forwards held him up and were awarded the scum feed. In the 23rd minute, the Wallabies were attacking about 15 metres out from the Boks’ line; Koroibete played half-back and threw a crap pass, to his left, to nobody in particular. (Is Marika left-handed? Can he even pass to his left?) Skelton bent down to take the pass but knocked the ball on. The Boks picked it up and Libbok’s clearing kick found touch 50 metres downfield. In the 50th minute, after a good exit from their 22 with ball in hand, the Wallabies sent the ball wide to Len Ikitau, who kicked it out on the full. And Cooper drop-kicked a restart out on the full.
Kicking, eh? There was a lot. The Wallabies’ single element game plan was to give possession to the Springboks and try to tackle them into submission. We know how that worked out. I analysed 27 kicks by the men in pumpkin for distance gained, possession outcome, target and chase quality, but I learned nothing much. Some kicks were good, some were very bad; most achieved nothing more than giving possession away while gaining perhaps 20 metres of territory. I have the impression that a lot of White’s box kicks went 10 to 15 metres farther than intended, which made life hard for the chasers and easy for le Roux and Moodie.
I doubt we’ll see the Wallabies use that game plan again.
The Wallabies of recent years earned a reputation for sub-par catch-and-pass skills. There weren’t so many fumbles and knock-ons on this match, but that’s because they kept giving possession away. While I’d like to say that the Wallabies can now handle kick-off receipts better, they faced only two kick-offs in this match – and they botched one of them. And on the matter of whether to try for a penalty goal rather than kicking to touch for an attacking lineout, as Michael Hooper has always wants to do, well, they tried that and the kicks missed.
To wrap this retrospective up, here’s a tip o’ the turban for some exceptionally good play – the kind of stuff that might earn a win in a closer match.
At the seven-minute mark, the Wallabies lost a lineout on their throw but Alaalatoa chased well and won the ball back. The backs moved the ball wide, quickly, while the Spingboks defenders were in disarrary, and Koroibete scored a beauty. The Wallabies’ reactions and speed in support were New Zealandesque.
Around 28 minutes in, Len Ikitau arrested a Boks raid with a staunch front-on tackle on PSDT. Skelton arrived, turned do Toit over like a turtle, rolled Esterhuizen off the ball and scooped it up. Top work. A few minutes later, the Boks went wide inside their 22; the Wallabies were stretched but Ikitau committed to nailing le Roux behind the line. He chopped his man down, skipped up and dived in after the ball. It was first-class outside centre play, just a pleasure to watch.
Early in the second half, the Springboks had put in eight phases of bash n’ barge near the Wallabies’ tryline when Pete Samu simply ripped the ball out of Mbonambi’s grip. Skelton flipped it to the backs, who got out from behind their line with little trouble. Damn, that Pete Samu is good. When the Boks had an attacking lineout inside the Wallabies’ 22, Mbonambi’s throw was too high and too long. Michael Hooper saw the ball coming over the top and grabbed it; Cooper saw it too, took Hooper’s flat pass and threaded a line through the flat-footed Boks.
In the 56th minute, Frost soared in a lineout to swipe a ball meant for Snyman – and he did it again a few minutes later. Mbonambi’s throw was not remotely straight; it went directly to Snyman’s face but Nick read its trajectory and swatted it down to Uelese. At the 66 minute mark, the Wallabies soaked up another onslaught of bash n’ barge close to their line before PSDT went over under the posts with Snyman riding him like a boogie board – but Cooper and Kerevi stopped him grounding the ball. Close to full time, Samu caught Libbok with the ball behind the line and the Wallabies forwards piled in to get a turnover.
And at the end, with time up, Carter Gordon inspired the Wallabies to chuck the ball around in their own half and the backs cut through for a late try.
If there’s anything positive to take out of this regrettable match, it’s this: in Pete Samu, Nick Frost, Rob Valetini and Len Ikitau, the Wallabies have four terrific, reliable, smart, intense world-class players who should be inked in for every important match for the remainder of 2023. There are others who are contenders, but those four are solid gold.