Rugby Championship: Five defining moments in the 2022 edition

Dylan Coetzee
Rugby Championship: Referee Mathieu Raynal and Bernard Foley discuss after a controversial decision.

The 2022 Rugby Championship was undoubtedly the finest edition the tournament has seen since its inauguration in 2012. There was unprecedented competition, with all four sides having a chance to push for the title for much of the championship. Ultimately it was the All Blacks who triumphed with yet another title.

Planet Rugby breaks down five defining moments in this year’s tournament.

All Blacks bounce back at Ellis Park

Fresh off a series defeat against Ireland, the All Blacks faced the Springboks at a boisterous Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit in round one. The South Africans produced a polished performance dominating their opponents in almost every facet of the game, winning 26-10 and ringing alarm bells in the New Zealand camp.

The Springboks were odds on to claim the round two clash at the famous Ellis Park, but it was not to be as the All Blacks bounced back with a 35-23 victory led by the return of Richie Mo’unga. The victory was crucial after losing three on the trot earning Ian Foster backing from New Zealand Rugby and building belief in the camp.

Given that the championship went down to the wire in the final round, the Ellis Park win was a massive turning point and central to the All Blacks’ title.

Los Pumas create history against Australia and New Zealand

The most refreshing aspect of the tournament was the rise of Los Pumas under coach Michael Cheika. The Australian took over as head coach earlier in the year after Mario Ledesma stepped down from the role following a poor run of results.

Under Cheika, Argentina looked much more organised on both sides of the ball and made strides in improving their discipline, an aspect of the game that plagued the side for a significant period.

Coming off a positive series win against Scotland in July, Los Pumas looked to continue building momentum and started brilliantly in round one, leading the Wallabies for much of the game before poor discipline let Dave Rennie’s men in for a comeback win.

However, Argentina learnt their lesson and produced one of their best performances in a decade, destroying Australia 48-17 in round two, their record win against the Wallabies.

Cheika’s men impressively sat on top of the table after two rounds before heading to New Zealand, where they claimed their first win in the country, triumphing over the All Blacks 25-18 in round three.

Los Pumas would go on to lose the final three games but will be proud of the history created and massive strides made in the tournament this year that sees them ranked eighth in the world, one place above Australia.

Key changes to the All Blacks coaching staff

Following the series loss to Ireland, the axe fell on coaches John Plumtree and Brad Mooar, with Jason Ryan being drafted in from the Crusaders to take on the forwards’ coach role.

Ryan’s influence increasingly showed throughout the six rounds typified by the All Blacks’ domination of Australia in the final round. The forward pack executed their fundamentals beautifully, mauled well and laid a better platform for the exciting backs to run with the ball.

After the Ellis Park win, Joe Schmidt joined the coaching staff focusing on attack and immediately impacted the attacking output of the side.

The All Blacks averaged 3.2 tries per game before Schmidt joined the coaching staff, a number which rose dramatically to 4.75 tries per game after the 57-year-old’s arrival.

Needless to say, the tweaks to the coaching staff were absolutely critical in the All Blacks title success in 2022.

Mathieu Raynal’s bold call

The most controversial moment of the tournament came in round five when referee Mathieu Raynal blew Wallabies fly-half Bernard Foley for time-wasting on a penalty kick for touch in the final minutes. Australia held a slim lead at the time and looked set to upset their rivals. However, the All Blacks would go on to score from the resulting scrum to win the game and retain the Bledisloe Cup.

The decision itself can be debated endlessly, but the significance of the call within the context of the championship is intriguing.

Should the decision have not been made, Australia and South Africa would have been front runners for the title, with the former having a shot at ending their Bledisloe Cup pain. While the latter would have likely gone on to claim the title, given how difficult it is to beat the All Blacks at Eden Park, as the Wallabies found out in the final round.

It was a brave and bold call by Raynal, who has publicly stood by his decision despite its ramifications on the frantic race to the title.

Springboks fly-half crisis

Coach Jacques Nienaber selected only two fly-halves in his squad for the entirety of 2022, with Handre Pollard firmly locked in at first-choice after Elton Jantjies’ horror showing against Wales in July.

While there is merit in Nienaber’s safety net in using utility players Damian Willemse and Frans Steyn at pivot if required, the coach was always walking a tightrope and was quickly caught out.

Pollard suffered a knee injury in round three, ruling him out for a significant period. At the same time, Jantjies’ was made unavailable after reports of an affair with team dietitian Zeenat Simjee surfaced in South Africa.

Willemse stepped up to the plate fantastically, showcasing his extreme talent but suffered a concussion in the penultimate round ruling him out for the crucial final round clash with the title on the line. Nienaber opted to pick Frans Steyn, who failed to produce on the day as the Springboks fell short of their target to beat Argentina by at least 39 points to claim the title.

Nienaber would have known the potential implications of his squad selection and quite frankly threw away an outside chance at the title through poor planning.

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