The semi-finals are done and dusted, and the two best teams in the world will contest the Final of the RWC. Both teams appeared to me to be deserving winners of their respective test matches, and the Final could be a classic. It is the first time since 1995 that two Southern Hemisphere teams will contest the final, and the first time that these two will play for glory.
I thought both referees were deserving of their opportunity in the semi-finals, and both tried to deliver even-handed performances. I felt that they both put a lot of thought into their games and hopefully it was a day to remember for both Jerome Garces and Wayne Barnes.
As much I wanted the Boks to win against the All Blacks, and they were not far off, I did think the better team on the day won. The ABs scored two tries to none They were far more inventive when they had the ball. Their game management was superior (highlighted by the fact that they out-scored the Boks when they were down to 14 players). They just seem to have the edge mentally over this group, and even though we can be very proud of the efforts of our players, who surprised some, the reality is that we have only managed one win recently under the tenure of Meyer (one has to ask if that is good enough – it’s not good enough to add up all the wins that we achieve against World XVs, and some of the minnows. In order to be the best, we need to be beating the best … And we have fallen woefully short).
I thought that Garces had another very good outing. He regularly got the balance of decision-making right and was able to step up to the plate to make brave decisions when required to do so. That is the mark of someone competent. I felt he got better as the tournament developed, coming into form at the business end of the tournament. Of course, he made a few errors. I thought he could have penalised McCaw for not rolling away when there was a turnover, there was a lineout where ball transfer hadn’t taken place and he allowed the NZ defence to come around the corner thereby necessitating a scrum, the penalty against Etzebeth for sealing was probably correct (but there were plenty others on the day), and the penalty against Matfield for the neck roll was a key decision that was difficult to see accurately (why so few decent camera angles for such an important decision?). Despite those, I did feel he had done a fair amount of preparation, and you always got the feeling that he was fairly rewarding dominance or sanctioning correctly when put in the hole!
Of the players, I thought Frans Malherbe did really well for the time that he was on the field and certainly deserved his place in the team with some impressive scrummaging (helped by the irrepressible Schalk Burger) the battle of the locks was pretty even in general play, but we did lose about 4/5 lineouts which is maybe a testameunt to the skill of our opponents. Sam Whitelock was probably the most rugged and combative warrior out there;, SA did very well in securing turnovers quite regularly to keep the scoreboard pressure up, but there wasn’t much to choose between all of the loose forwards.
Fourie du Preez had an excellent game, marshalling his troops, and Pollard’s place kicking kept us in the game (not quite in the league of Carter with his allround game though). Habana worked his socks off the whole game, and our young centre pairing had another good outing against the world-class, tough and experienced Kiwi duo or Nonu and Smith. I thought Ben Smith was outstanding the whole game, regularly chasing kicks and winning back possession (Habana also very good).
Social media flipped around a clip of McCaw running past Louw and knocking him over (watch here). There was reference to the use of an elbow. It was worth a look, but I don’t think anything is clear at all, and the player was rightly given the all clear to play in the final.
It’s disappointing to lose, but we need to look inwards and improve our attack, develop more game breakers and game changers and play a game that is in line with modern trends if we are serious about becoming the best team in the world. Our Super Rugby teams underperformed and some of our teams appear to have stagnated or are in rebuilding phases. Enough said. Well done NZ.
The other semi was a well-contested affair, but unfortunately for Los Pumas, I felt they made the early decision to play too much rugby, and it backfired and forced them to play catch-up rugby for the rest of the game. It was a poor decision, or at least premature, as they had some weapons to really hurt the Wallabies over time, especially their scrum and some very creative backs. Perhaps I’m missing something, but they did receive plenty of rewards from referee Barnes for the rest of the match, and it could have been a different game if they were ahead. Having said that, Australia did create a couple of beautiful tries of their own and in the end were deserving winners! I did say in my previous piece that the Wallabies had the best defence, especially with their choice of 6, 7 and 8, and so it proved. Pocock was immense over the ball, and Fardy had a huge game too!
A couple of refereeing points to come out of his game: I’ve said that I thought Wayne Barnes was looking good, and he has had a very good RWC. On the whole, I thought he did well in this fixture. There were, however, a few errors in this game. Was the ball knocked on after a mark in the 22m area? Did this set up the second try (play on?); in the 39th minute of the first half, it wasn’t clear to me that the Pumas had knocked on at all, in fact everything looks good . They are deep in the 22m and were looking to get some value from their foray into Wallaby territory just before half-time. Was there a call from the touchline? I’m not sure. There was a very poor penalty given to the Pumas when the Wallabies had numbers over the ball and the tackler was isolated and played the ball twice in the 52nd minute (in addition to a very clumsy clean out) and a similar one given again to the Pumas when they had numbers and were dominant in the tackle, but Marcelo Bosch was clearly in the tripod position and not supporting his own bodyweight.
I thought Genia deserved a yellow card for his very early tackle from a tap penalty (he had already received one earlier in the tournament against Wales) but I did agree with the yellow card against the Pumas for the knee chop, and I thought Barnes was excellent in his explanation in trying to sell the decision to the public. It was a tough call, but I believe player safety is paramount, and World Rugby has highlighted this type of tackle as one that the powers that be are trying to outlaw. With the help of the referees. But as you can see, if the Pumas play against 14 players for 10 minutes, it could have made a difference.
I thought Barnes was excellent with his scrum preparation and duly rewarded the dominant pack, doing it consistently with very good timing of the whistle and perfect explanations!
Without taking anything away from the main event, it is also worthwhile to mention the Currie Cup Final, which the Lions won quite comfortably in the end. They were deserving winners on match day, and also in terms of the product they delivered throughout the season. They have a coaching staff who understood how to get the best out of their personnel and ended up winning every game they played. It must be mentioned that the competition was a little diluted as a result of the RWC, but all you can do is win! There a quite a few youngsters unearthed by the Lions back room staff this season, and they play the best rugby of the local teams. I will make a bold prediction: Jaco Kriel will be a Bok next season. He deserves it. His work rate and strength are immense! It does not matter that he’s not a giant!!
Credit must go to the youngest Currie Cup Final referee of all time Rasta Rasivhenge who acquitted himself well on match day. He got a bit bolshy at times, but didn’t make any glaring errors and probably could have gone a few more laps when the players were already out on their feet. The better team won, and he too can be proud of his first crack at our showpiece domestic game.
The Final is almost upon us, and I leave for the UK tonight to be a part of the final weekend. The grand finale of parties aboard the mega yacht Mischief will be an occasion to remember if any of the previous episodes with our grand host, Ian Malouf, is anything to go by! I will be attending both of the final matches and I’m sure they will be special if the previous matches are anything to go by. England has done a superb job in hosting this tournament, and that’s a unanimous view shared by everyone I have spoken to!
I think the Pumas will give us a huge run for our money, and I expect there to be nothing in it. The Final will depend on small detail. I expect the Wallabies to shine if the game becomes an arm wrestle as I really rate the back row combo that they have chosen. As a team they are the most “skilled” over the ball with both teams understanding what it takes to get over the line. If the Aussie pack can gain parity in the exchanges, they will be difficult to beat. I expect Nigel Owens will be the ref, deservedly so, and I hope that he referees the game with his usual style to enable players to liberate the game and make it one of the few finals to remember for all the right reasons.