The Tri Nations officially became the Rugby Championship yesterday as Argentina finally gained entry into the rugby elite. They may have been comprehensively beaten by South Africa 27-6 but that was not the point, they were there, they were proud and so we all were.
Argentina have long deserved a place in one of rugby’s major competitions. For well over twenty years they have provided a stern test for opposition, ever since the days of Hugo Porta really. It has been continually resisted though, until after that thrilling performance in the 2007 World Cup saw them take 3rd place – they could no longer be denied.
They owe a huge debt of gratitude to former scrum half Agustin Pichot in particular who has lobbied and harassed in order to see his dream realised of Argentina competing at the top. They will find it tough, there is no doubt about that, but then they are playing the three best teams in the world – is there a side out there that would not find it tough?
Their hard nosed attitude when they take the field will earn them respect, and it may even earn them the upper hand in the forwards battle when they take on Australia, a side not renowned for the forward strength. Do not be fooled though, they may play the game in a hard and direct manner but they posses some truly world class players. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe would walk into almost any test side and is the type of leader that people will always follow, and in Juan Martin Hernandez they have an absolute gem of a player.
The star at the 2007 World Cup, Hernandez has been blighted by injury, but yesterday served as a timely reminder to the world of just how good he is. Majestic with the ball in hand he showed glimpses of his ability to glide through gaps that most cannot even see. It is with the boot though that the class of the man is really on show. How often in the modern game to we see aimless or misdirected kicks, easily claimed with a mark? Not so with Hernandez on the field. His every touch with boot to ball is with purpose, time and time again he sent the ball up to fall perfectly a yard ahead to the South African 22, causing Zane Kirchner all manner of problems as he desperately searched from the 22 to land in. It may be a simple tactic, but when executed so brilliantly it is a devastating one.
Unfortunately though the dream story was not to be, South Africa won handsomely, aided by what was some rather appalling discipline from Argentina. Steve Walsh, the referee, was excellent is has to be said. No stranger to criticism, he understood absolutely the occasion he was refereeing. On another day Argentina could have had a number of yellow cards and been really hammered, but he communicated well and understood their ‘over enthusiasm’.
They must be careful though, next week such lapses in discipline will be looked on far more harshly.
South Africa it must be said were excellent. Using their backline far more than in recent memory. They were willing to throw it wide and trust their wingers, perhaps they felt more secure having picked Sharks No8 Keegan Daniel, who likes to spend his time out in the wider regions.
So yes, South Africa won the battle, but by even being there Argentina have won the war.
New Zealand were playing Australia in the other match, running out winners by 27 points to 19 in what was a pretty poor game. The Australians frankly did not turn up and their game was notable mainly for the number of handling errors that they made.
The All Blacks did nothing exceptional, but then they did not really have to. Their dominance at the breakdown was all encompassing and will probably have dented the pride of David Pocock somewhat.
These are early days though and the sides are all just gearing up in the years tournament, so be sure to expect fireworks next week as the finest players on earth get ready to do battle again.