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Rugby Championship R2 wrap: Big calls on the money in pulsating Boks-All Blacks clash

It’s one win apiece after two rounds in the 2022 Rugby Championship, which may yet prove to be the most keenly fought edition of the tournament to date.

The Pumas and All Blacks flipped the script on the Wallabies and Springboks respectively, their victories coming in contrasting fashion in San Juan and Johannesburg on the weekend.

After letting last week’s Test in Mendoza slip, the Pumas on Saturday powered away from the Wallabies after building a 16-point lead at the break, Michael Cheika’s side recording their biggest ever victory over Australia in a 47-16 win.

Earlier Saturday at Ellis Park, the under-fire All Blacks restored some pride in their jersey – and eased a little of the pressure on coach Ian Foster – with a thrilling 35-23 win over South Africa.

Read on as we review some of the big talking points for the weekend.

REFEREE PEARCE GOT THE TWO BIG CALLS RIGHT

Is there a better sight in world rugby than a packed Ellis Park? If it’s not the most intimidating ground in the game, then it’s certainly up there – and there wasn’t a spare seat to be had on Saturday night.

And the 61,519-strong crowd were treated to a thrilling six-try encounter – the last two of which were scored by the visitors as they overcame the sin-binning of replacement Beauden Barrett with 13 minutes to play.

That decision, which was one of many tough calls English referee Luke Pearce had to make, was right on the money.

The All Blacks had, moments earlier, turned over possession thanks to a brilliant breakdown steal from Ardie Savea, the No. 8 quickly snatching the ball following a cutting run from Makazole Mapimpi. New Zealand then looked to spread the ball inside their own 22, hoping to catch the Springboks on the hop with an unlikely counter attack.

When the play broke down on the other side of the field, the visitors then shifted the ball to lock Sam Whitelock, who quickly tipped in onto an unsuspecting Fletcher Newell, the prop grassing possession which allowed Springboks scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse to toe it through towards the All Blacks’ line.

Just as he did that, Hendrikse was taken out by Barrett, the All Blacks star robbing the South African of the chance to chase his own kick through and potentially retake possession or make a tackle on the New Zealand cover

And that was arriving in the shape of Richie Mo’unga, who was roughly the same difference from the bouncing ball as Hendrikse.

“I’m not talking penalty try here because No. 10 is clearly in behind; but he can’t do that, No. 22. It’s cynical so I’m thinking yellow card here, boys,” Pearce said as he consulted with his fellow officials.

Given Mo’unga’s proximity to the ball, there was more than enough doubt to suggest that Hendrikse would have been first to it, or at least that Mo’unga would have arrived at the same time to have an opportunity to make a legal tackle on the Springboks No. 9.

It was by no means “probable” that Hendrikse would have gone on to score, as World Rugby Law 8.3 is written.

“A penalty try is awarded between the goal posts if foul play by the opposing team prevents a probable try from being scored, or scored in a more advantageous position. A player guilty of this must be cautioned and temporarily suspended or sent off. No conversion is attempted.”

Barrett was however completely deserving of his yellow card, the All Blacks veteran forced to watch on nervously from the sidelines as his team rallied to outlast the world champions.

Earlier, South Africa had a five-pointer scratched off, after an obstruction had denied Sam Whitelock an opportunity to tackle a flying Lukhanyo Am.

The Springboks winger had looked to open up the All Blacks’ defence after receiving a deep pass inside his own 22. Seeing a jumbled group of players in front of him, Am charged through the middle and deep into the backfield, before he threw a sweeping spiral pass to Makazole Mapimpi who ran away to score.

On the replays, however, it was clear that Hendrikse had twice moved into the path of Whitelock and denied him the chance to tackle Am.

One of rugby’s core principles is that if you are in front of the ball, you are out of the game; just as if you are on the floor, you are out of the game.

On both of these occasions, and largely across the entirety of the match, Pearce handled himself superbly. And the result was a thrilling Test match in a storied rivalry that seldom fails to deliver.

Springboks fans have cried foul over a decision earlier in the match that saw Am denied a try because of an earlier knock-on, disputing that the ball had actually been ripped away by Sam Whitelock. But the fact that New Zealand were playing under advantage makes this a moot point; the visitors may not have moved the ball with such abandon inside their own half had they not had a virtual free play.

AM WORLD-CLASS; ABs HAVE THEIR HOOKER IN TAUKEI’AHO

There were several standout players at Ellis Park on Saturday night, with Ardie Savea, Sam Whitelock, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Makazole Mapimpi and Rieko Ioane among those to impress.

But there were none better than Lukhanyo Am, who continually challenged the All Blacks’ defence in a superb performance that confirmed his standing as one of the world’s premier centres.

Am finished the match with 137 metres from eight runs, four clean breaks and five beaten defenders.

But it was Springboks centre’s try-scoring finish for his 37th minute five-pointer that best underscored his quality, Am charging down the right touchline, bumping off a feeble tackle attempt from Caleb Clarke and then surviving the desperate clutches off the All Blacks to cover to touch down in the corner.

Am would have had a try-assist, too, had it not been for the obstruction of Hendrikse in the lead-up to Mapimpi’s disallowed try; although there may have been a question mark on the final pass in that move as well.

Still, it did little diminish a world-class performance from the Springboks outside centre, proving also that the world champions are anything but a relentless box-kick team of which they are often accused of being.

Meanwhile, Samisoni Taukei’aho looks to have established himself as New Zealand’s premier hooker, following some indifferent form from Codie Taylor and veteran Dane Coles.

Taukei’aho has been a powerhouse for the Chiefs in recent times and has at last been given an opportunity to show he is a hooker that can handle Test rugby.

On Saturday night at Ellis Park, Taukei’aho finished second to only the peerless Ardie Savea for runs and was largely sound at the set-piece save for a couple of wobbly lineout throws and a “break foot” mistake early in the contest.

He looks like a player with huge upside for All Blacks coach Ian Foster, for however long he remains in the top job.

BITTER-SWEET MOMENT FOR CHEIKA

Argentina’s record-breaking victory over Australia won’t be forgotten for some time, such was the onslaught the Pumas piled on an injury-ravaged Wallabies, who had no answer for an aerial assault that reinforced their issues at fullback.

The seven-tries-to-two victory was rightfully celebrated in the stands in San Juan, while Wallabies coach Dave Rennie refused to use the team’s succession of injuries as an excuse, declaring: “Massive disappointment. Not good enough. You could see there were four tries that were kicks in behind us. We certainly got dominated in the collision area.

“We created plenty of opportunities but we have to be patient. Rucks not a disaster, we just weren’t clinical enough.

“We lacked cohesion with a few changes. We’ll look at the footage but we’re better than that. It’s a massive disappointment. We want to earn the respect of the country and you don’t do it with performances like that.”

And then there was Pumas coach Michael Cheika, who found himself in the same position as old foe Eddie Jones, by virtue of their position as proud Australians.

But while Jones doesn’t often lament to some degree the success he has built over the country of his birth, the Pumas’ triumph on Saturday certainly had Cheika feeling both joy and sorrow.

“I love these guys, they’re my crew now,” Cheika told reporters. “I was up on the last try, cheering. But then I started crying because I know I probably shouldn’t be doing this. It was a bit confusing for me, personally.

“But they’re my boys now. That’s my team. I will do everything I can to help them get success and enjoy rugby. They are paying me a lot of respect here and people are believing in the things that we are doing. I have to do everything I can to help them.”

Next up for Cheika’s Pumas is a tough two-week assignment in New Zealand. Rest assured that if he is able to spring an upset in either Christchurch or Hamilton there won’t be one solitary tear shed.

NOTHING WRONG WITH SLIPPER’S CLEAN-OUT

Let’s be clear here, the decision to overturn James O’Connor’s try in the 20th minute had absolutely no impact on the final result – Australia were comprehensively beaten in San Juan.

And there was enough to suggest that either O’Connor’s pass to Jordan Petaia or the return ball from the winger may have been forward.

But to overturn the try because of James Slipper’s cleanout of Pablo Matera was farcical.

The Wallabies skipper could have done little to execute a safer cleanout, the fact that Matera ended up in the air as much his fault as Slipper’s given he was holding onto the tackled player and not the ball and the force of the movement shifted his bodyweight from one leg to two.

In no way did Slipper attack the legs, fail to wrap his arms or make contact with Matera’s head, which are actions that should indeed be penalised.

There is certainly an argument that Lachie Lonergan contributed to Matera’s awkward final body position, but if that was the case then he should have been pinged for side entry more than anything.

No doubt players need to be protected at the breakdown, and anyone who leads with the shoulder, goes off their feet at speed or enters from an illegal angle, and injures an opposition player should be sanctioned accordingly.

But this was a tough call on Slipper on what soon became an ugly night for Australian rugby.

Furthermore, it was hard to see how there wasn’t compelling evidence to overturn the on-field decision that denied Emiliano Boffelli a try late in the first half.

Thankfully, in either case, the decisions had no effect on the final result.

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