Another year, another Rugby Championship title for the All Blacks.
Ian Foster’s side made it a perfect sweep of this World Cup cycle’s four southern hemisphere crowns, overcoming some bumps along the way, with a resounding 38-7 win over Australia at the MCG on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the Springboks wrapped up second spot with a 22-21 victory over the Pumas, who finished with a flurry but ultimately were left cursing a couple of key penalty misses by Santiago Carreras.
Read on as we review some of the key talking points from the weekend’s action.
SCOTT NOW TOP OF THE BARRETT TREE – AND A GENUINE WORLD-CLASS LOCK
Any suggestion that the All Blacks would arrive in France “flying under the radar” has now been well and truly quashed, with Ian Foster’s side producing probably their best Rugby Championship form of the coach’s tenure in 2023.
They weren’t perfect in Melbourne, far from it, and Foster acknowledged as much, the coach even praising Australia’s opening quarter when he thought the hosts had the better of the play.
But New Zealand came through that period conceding only seven points, and then repelled the Wallabies again in the third quarter, before cutting loose with a devastating attacking blast that yielded three tries in eight minutes.
While Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea and Rieko Ioane finished those five-pointers off, the sight of a gliding Scott Barrett ranging in the wider channels, stepping in an out between defenders, and then offloading basketball style over the top, was really something to behold.
Barrett was outstanding against the Wallabies, just as he has been for most of this season, the Crusaders skipper more than justifying his selection ahead of Sam Whitelock. Right from the outset when he smashed Tate McDermott at the lineout, setting up the easiest of tries for Shannon Frizell, Barrett was at the heart of just about everything the All Blacks did right.
At the MCG, Barrett finished with the incredible stats of 16 runs for 42 metres, with one clean break and an offload, and added a blemish-free 11 tackles for good measure. Barrett even found time to engage in a touch of niggle with Nic White, hilariously putting his finger across the chirpy Wallabies scrum-half’s mouth as if to “shoosh” him, having tackled the replacement at the back of an Australian ruck.
But his efforts were perhaps best reflected by a key tackle on Samu Kerevi as the Wallabies centre charged towards the line and tried to beat the All Blacks lock on the outside. Barrett tracked perfectly across, wrangled Kerevi to the ground, and then denied him the opportunity to reach out and score with the help of Will Jordan and Dalton Papali’i.
Barrett is the prototype of the modern second-rower, a player who has gone past Brodie Retallick and Whitelock in the All Blacks’ second-rower pecking order – and established himself as the most important Barrett brother of the three to New Zealand’s World Cup campaign.
“I would have thought nine out of 10, because if I gave him 10 he might have a lazy week,” Foster said of Scott Barrett. “He’s playing real good.”
Foster also rubbished suggestions the growth in Barrett’s game had put him and his fellow All Blacks selectors between a rock and a hard place, given Whitelock’s long-time contributions to New Zealand’s success.
“I’m not sure why people think it’s a headache, we want all our players playing well. I thought Brodie went well, I thought he just looked a little bit jaded, he went through a lot of work. So it wasn’t a specific reason we made that sub, but we’ve got Sam and obviously he’s been jumping out of his skin to get on the park and he played really well.
“So there are some nice options there and we’ve just got to look at the balance and we’ve just got to probably get over the fact of who’s actually starting and look at the combination as we go through 80 minutes.
“We know you’ve got to finish strong and you’ve got to nail every moment in that 80 minutes and so we’re working hard in getting that right balance.”
For many years the headlines have been about Beauden Barrett and rightly so, while Jordie has also generated plenty of buzz given his versatility, booming boot, and switch to inside centre in 2022.
But Scott Barrett’s time is now, he is playing the rugby of his life.
BELL’S STARTING RETURN A SHINING LIGHT FOR WALLABIES AMID FRONT-ROW MIRE
While Australia enjoyed periods of sustained pressure on the All Blacks, most notably in the first 17 minutes after halftime, they could manage only a solitary try in the 80 minutes at the MCG. That was in large part to some desperate All Blacks defence, but so too a lack of accuracy in execution and patience from the Wallabies.
A season-ending injury to Allan Alaalatoa only added to the Wallabies’ pain at fulltime, while Taniela Tupou also picked up a rib cartilage injury; the powerhouse prop has travelled with Australia to Dunedin, but he is at long odds to face the All Blacks in Bledisloe II.
Given Western Force prop Tom Robertson was lost to an ACL rupture during the Super Rugby Pacific season, the Wallabies’ depth at tighthead is really being tested, with Tom Lambert and Zane Nonggorr added to the squad on Sunday.
It may be that James Slipper shifts from loosehead to his less favoured tighthead position, which would allow Angus Bell to retain his spot in the No. 1 jersey after a stellar return to the starting side in Bledisloe I.
Having spent much of the past two years out with injury, it is fantastic to see Bell not only fit and healthy, but carrying with the kind of authority that can make him one of the premier props in world rugby.
Nearly every time Bell carried the ball he won the gainline, taking at least a couple of All Blacks defenders with him. Then, in the second half, Tupou’s injury meant Bell had to come back on and play more minutes than the Wallabies had originally planned, the prop making one massive break that was only negated by some desperate All Blacks cover.
Despite a performance that yielded 13 runs for 53 metres, and 16 tackles on the defensive side of the ball, Bell cut a dejected figure deep within the confines of the MCG an hour after the Wallabies’ defeat.
“Eddie’s a proud Australian and he’s put a lot of time into us, and he cares so much for this team and for the result, so when you play for your country you play for you family and you play for your coach,” Bell said when asked to elaborate on his emotional post-match interview with Stan Sport.
Bell, too, was gutted for Alaalatoa.
“Al’s a big part of our team, a big part of our leadership, he holds a lot of respect in our group as well as being a world-class tighthead, that’s just the start of what we lose with Allan,” Bell said.
“But we’ve got guys who can step up and fill that void, but that’s a very hard void to fill.”
The Wallabies’ scrum came under pressure after Alaalatoa’s injury, with Tupou’s rib knock also not helping the situation. And the set-piece looms as a major concern at the World Cup as a result, particularly if Tupou faces an extended stint on the sidelines.
OFFICIALS GOT THE WILLIAMS INCIDENT BADLY WRONG
The Test between the Springboks and Pumas in Johannesburg was barely 11 seconds old when scrum-half Grant Williams was knocked out cold when trying to clear the opening kick-off.
Flying through to attempt the charge down, Argentina winger Juan Cruz Mallia caught Williams with his hip after leaping into the air to try and block the kick. While there was no intent to injure, the recklessness of Malia’s challenge put Williams in danger and the resulting collision was sickening.
Still, referee Andrew Brace ruled the collision a “rugby incident” that was “completely unavoidable”, that Cruz Mallia was “committed to make the charge down”. He did not sanction Cruz Mallia as a result as there was “no foul play”.
The incident evoked memories of CJ Stander’s hit on Patrick Lambie during Ireland’s tour of South Africa in 2016 and, more recently in Super Rugby Pacific in 2022, when Blues winger Caleb Clarke collected Moana Pasifika’s Tomasi Alosio.
Both Stander and Clarke’s challenges resulted in red cards and one- and three-week bans respectively, reflecting how such incidents have been officiated as the game’s crackdown on head contact has developed.
Which is what makes the decision not to sanction Cruz Mallia even more perplexing, particularly when Brace and his Television Match Official Brett Cronan could have at least issued a yellow card and then taken the allotted 10 minutes to review it closely and upgrade it to a send-off offence if necessary.
If this incident had taken place at the World Cup, where the eyes of the sporting world will be on rugby and officials will be determined to show that it is a safe sport to play, you can almost guarantee Cruz Mallia would have been handed at least a yellow card.
It didn’t come as a surprise then that on Monday morning [AEST] SANZAAR confirmed Cruz Mallia had been cited for his charge-down with the incident having met the red-card threshold for foul play.
“Juan Cruz Mallia of Argentina has been cited for alleged foul play during a Rugby Championship match at the weekend,” the SANZAAR release read.
“Cruz Mallia is alleged to have contravened Law 9.11: Players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others, during the match between South Africa and Argentina at Emirates Airlines Park in Johannesburg on 29 July 2023.
“Upon further review of the match footage, the Citing Commissioner deemed in his opinion the incident had met the Red Card threshold for foul play.”
As SANZAAR’s release confirms, the officials got this one badly wrong. If a player leaps into the air, then they are responsible for any collision that ensues with an opposition player that may be in a compromised position, as Williams was when kicking the ball.
If Clarke’s suspension is any guide, Cruz Mallia should expect at least a three-week suspension as a result.