Coaches mull highs, lows in rollercoaster Rugby Championship
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — During the period that New Zealand rugby fans may remember as the dark days of 2022, head coach Ian Foster’s was a voice crying in the wilderness as he insisted the All Blacks still could win the Rugby Championship.
That down period reached a peak when the All Blacks sustained their first-ever home loss to Argentina in Christchurch a week ago, extending an unprecedented losing streak at home to three games and sending the Pumas to the top of the championship table and the All Blacks to the bottom.
But what a difference a weekend makes.
The All Blacks beat Argentina 53-3 in a rematch Saturday to tip the table on its head: the All Blacks went to the top, the Pumas to the bottom while Australia and South Africa are close together in second and third place.
The southern hemisphere championship is the closest it has ever been with only a point between first and fourth. New Zealand is on top with 10 points while Australia, South Africa and Argentina have nine points each. Every team has a variation on New Zealand’s win, loss, win, loss record.
The All Blacks began the tournament with a 26-10 loss to South Africa which, coming hard on the heels of their first-ever series loss to Ireland at home, deepened the gloom of fans over the state of the New Zealand game. But the All Blacks bounced back to beat the World Cup-champion Springboks 35-23 in Johannesburg, raising the spirits of their supporters and prompting New Zealand Rugby to confirm Foster as head coach through next year’s World Cup.
Then came the loss to the Pumas at Christchurch which added to the All Blacks’ recent losing run and a national debate about Foster’s future and the causes of the team’s malaise.
The win on Saturday by seven tries to nil continued the All Blacks’ rollercoaster form and the jagged emotional ride for their fans.
Foster’s mood hasn’t changed dramatically through the ups and downs and he refused to be carried away with the All Blacks win, saying highs and lows are part of “the life of a coach.”
“All we’ve done is put ourselves back into contention. From a Championship perspective, we’ve still got plenty to do so we’ll roll our sleeves up and get stuck into our work.”
The Pumas began with a 46-21 loss to Australia at home, then beat a depleted Wallabies team 48-17 at San Juan, Argentina for their largest-ever win over Australia.
That was followed by the historic win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, one of the high points of Argentina’s rugby history.
After Saturday’s loss, Pumas head coach Michael Cheika might agree with Foster that the life of a head coach has its moments.
“Rugby’s a thing where you’re only as good as your last game and you’re only as good as your next game,” Cheika said. “There’s no summaries because there’s no average. If you want to be average then you’ll take an average but if you want to be the best, you have to try and be the best the next time you run out there.
South Africa began with a win and a loss against New Zealand and followed up with a win and a loss in Australia. Saturday’s 24-8 win over the Wallabies was its first in Australia in nine years.
The Springboks have used 32 players in the tournament so far, looking at new talent with next year’s World Cup in France in mind.
“While trying to stay competitive and win the Rugby Championship we also need to get clarity on some positions going into the World Cup. We’ve had to be creative with selection at times,” head coach Jacques Nienaber said. “This team never lost belief even though the lack of continuity in selection that’s been forced on us could’ve affected them.”
Australia will weigh a win and a loss against Argentina and the same outcome against the Springboks as they head into a vital Bledisloe Cup series against the All Blacks in two weeks. A week ago they might have been confident of retrieving the Bledisloe Cup but their loss and the All Blacks’ win on Saturday may cause a reassessment.
Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie said the mixed results of the Rugby Championship “highlights how tough international footy is at the moment. The teams are so even if you’re five percent off you get hurt.”
Stay tuned: After a week off for all four teams, Australia and New Zealand will meet in two matches, beginning with a rare midweek test on Sept. 15. The Pumas and Springboks also meet home and away in the last two rounds.
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