Saturday, September 6, 2014

Rugby Championship: New Zealand v Argentina Highlights

©Dave Lintott

New Zealand went top of the table in the third round of the Rugby Championship by virtue of defeating Argentina 28-9 in Napier on Saturday. The four tries to zero result in combination with South Africa losing against Australia in Perth means the All Blacks are the only undefeated team in the competition. Despite the loss Argentina was in with a change well into the second half but a controversial decision from the referee which cost Argentina a try in the 57th minute seemingly ruined the match. At that point in time New Zealand led 18-9. Had it been 18-16 then the final quarter could have been very different.

Now at the halfway point of the third edition of the Rugby Championship Argentina remains in search of a first victory. Winning in Napier was never a likely scenario due to the New Zealanders being superior to all other teams at this point in time. The World Cup 2011 winners remain undefeated at home in five years and have a game plan which no team has been able to counter since England did so in December 2012. 

Argentina's new game plan, adopted by Daniel Hourcade, is an approach which puts the South Americans in better try scoring opportunities. With it being centred on ball retention Los Pumas are kicking less and running more within their own half. For it to be effective the conditions are required to be running-friendly, or dry. 

With there being heavy rain in Napier throughout the week of the game and during the match itself Argentina was not able to produce a winning performance. New Zealand showed why it is on top of the IRB World Rankings as Argentina's opportunities by capitalizing on small errors. Argentina's opportunities, in contrast, were few and far between. 

The selection of Horacio Agulla in place of Juan Imhoff was, for instance, about shutting down the threat of Julian Savea. With Agulla lacking the comprative attack of Imhoff it meant beating his man on attack was not likely and conditions complicated this possibility. Savea impressed with two tries and did so with Argentina's defensive line failing to adjust both times. 

Indeed execution in both offence and defence saw Argentina fall behind and lose the match. The referee, though, did make questionable decisions against the South Americans on more than one occasion. Frenchman Pascal Gauzere frustrated Pumas players and supporters in his scrum calls and differing decisions to Argentina to that of New Zealand.

When, for instance, second-rower Tomás Lavanini cleaned out a ruck in the first half Gauzere went to the TMO to check for foul play. Lavanini had entered to clean out Richie McCaw but replays showed that he had done so with his shoulders and arms making it nothing more than a penalty in a worst case scenario. Gauzere, however, did not take the same option when Savea took out Joaquín Tuculet without the ball or when McCaw did likewise to Nicolás Sánchez. 

The option of going to the TMO was therefore not taken consistently and when Gauzere called Leonardo Senatore's charge down a knock-on social media erupted with anger. The Pumas back-rower charged down a clearance kick, regathered and scored a legal try yet the referee blew his whistle without checking with the TMO. 

Rugby supporters of Argentina, New Zealand and neutrals were all vocal in criticizing the non-try decision of Gauzere. Above all else it left the general rugby public frustrated as the desire to have more competitive teams in the global game requires decisions to be correct and not go, unjustly, in favor of the superior teams. 

With or without the try being scored the home side was the better team on the day and deserved the victory. A lack of consistency in the use of the TMO should, however, not be allowed to repeat itself. It had an impact on Argentina with the players clearly losing focus. An inability to call upon adequate replacements also went against Argentina as New Zealand's world-class bench was too strong. 

Argentina will now head to Australia to face the Wallabies on the Gold Coast next Saturday. New Zealand, for its part, will host South Africa in Wellington. The matches will be played at early kick-off times, Argentine time, as was the case of today's two fixtures. 

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