New Zealand were crowned Tri Nations 2020 champions without playing on Saturday, thanks to the second stalemate played out between Australia and Argentina.
The title gives new All Blacks coach Ian Foster something to build on, following a Tri Nations campaign in which his side lost to both the Wallabies and Los Pumas.
Hosts Australia and Argentina can be happy with aspects of their effort over the last six weeks, not least those victories over the All Blacks.
Below, we run the rule over each team with the views from within their respective camps.
New Zealand emerge victorious despite teething trouble
New Zealand travelled to Australia for the Tri Nations still adjusting to life under Ian Foster, but determined to prove that the new coaching set-up was “building something special”.
That certainly seemed to be the case on the tournament’s opening day, as the All Blacks ran in six tries to secure a record 43-5 defeat of Australia and ensure the Bledisloe Cup remained in New Zealand for another year.
“The trophy is really important to us, and we care a lot about it. I’m just so proud of the work we’ve put in over the last five-six weeks building up to this moment,” captain Sam Cane said. “It feels like we’ve improved every single week and I’m really excited about where this group can go.”
However, the mood would change over the following fortnight as the All Blacks lost to both the Wallabies and Argentina. Cane was magnanimous in defeat to Australia in Brisbane, where Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Lachlan Swinton were both shown first-half red cards, before the hosts edged home 24-22.
“The Aussies adapted really well,” Cane said. “They controlled the game through the forward pack and a lot of kicking off nine. I thought we were way too passive on defence tonight. Australia deserved their win, well done.”
Seven days later, in Parramatta, the All Blacks were caught cold as Nicolás Sánchez and Los Pumas wracked up a 19-3 lead early in the second half. The All Blacks rallied to score tries through Cane and Caleb Clarke, but were unable to prevent a second defeat in as many weeks, falling to a maiden loss to Argentina, 25-15.
In the wake of the defeat to Los Pumas, Cane raised eyebrows in some quarters when, commenting on the reaction to the result, he said: “I think we have got amazing fans but we have also got some pretty brutal ones”.
The All Blacks and their captain were determined not to suffer a third defeat in a row, however, and in the two weeks between their matches against Argentina, focused on “embracing the pressure we’re under as a team”. “We’re just really driven to get a performance we’re proud of,” Cane added. “The last two games the feeling was just horrible. There would be nothing worse than feeling that again leading into a summer.”
The result was a resounding 38-0 victory that answered critics and increased their points difference to such an extent that it essentially wrapped up the Tri Nations title. Having gifted the Argentines a ‘Maradona 10’ All Blacks jersey in tribute to the late football icon as the team prepared to do the haka, New Zealand put in a ruthless performance in attack and defence. Dane Coles, Ardie Savea, Will Jordan (2) and Patrick Tuipulotu all ran in tries as Richie Mo’unga kicked 13 points, including all five conversions.
Australia’s 16-16 draw against Argentina on the final day confirmed the All Blacks as champions. “We’re delighted. You go into a competition and the goal is to win it,” Foster said. “To have won it is something that we’re pretty proud of. We went to Australia with a bit of a purpose, and certainly winning the Tri Nations was one of them against two teams we’ve got a lot of respect for.”
Argentina struggle to build on historic All Blacks win
Few outside observers gave Los Pumas much hope of making an impression on the Tri Nations 2020.
Unlike their opponents in Australia, Argentina’s players were short on match practice having not played together since their final Rugby World Cup 2019 Pool C encounter with the USA. On top of that, more than 20 players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 when the squad convened for a training camp, meaning the group had to move into a secure bubble in Montevideo, Uruguay.
On arrival in Australia, the team was required to undergo a strict quarantine in a Western Sydney hotel, a preparation far from ideal. “It was challenging but we are working towards ensuring that the team is ready,” team manager Marcelo Loffreda said ahead of Los Pumas’ opening match against New Zealand.
That hard work paid off in Parramatta last month as Nicolás Sánchez scored all of Los Pumas’ points — via a try, conversion and six penalties — to mastermind a first-ever victory over the All Blacks. Fans inside Bankwest Stadium, and on social media, erupted as the magnitude of the 25-15 win sunk in.
“Adversity always makes teams stronger,” Sánchez said after the match. “Now in our heads we only have the idea of continuing to grow.” Those sentiments were echoed by centre Matías Orlando: “The game finished, we celebrated as we had to and we’ve started to think about Australia… Certainly, the next three games will be much harder than this one as they now are in a position to study our game plan.”
Those words proved prophetic as Argentina found themselves trailing Australia 15-6 in Newcastle seven days later. Sánchez again proved the hero as he notched all his side’s points once more to salvage a 15-15 draw. It might not have been enough, however, had Reece Hodge converted a 78th minute penalty attempt.
Having paid tribute to the late Diego Maradona prior to their haka in Newcastle a week later, the All Blacks avenged their opening defeat with a 38-0 victory that all-but sealed the title thanks to their superior points difference.
Despite losing Marcos Kremer to a 16th-minute yellow card in their final match against Australia at Bankwest Stadium, Los Pumas recovered well and led 13-3 when Felipe Ezcurra’s smart break was finished off by winger Bautista Delguy. Wallabies replacement Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was shown a red card with 20 minutes left, at which point Domingo Miotti’s second penalty of the evening gave Argentina a 16-9 advantage.
However, Los Pumas soon had Lucas Paulos sent to the sin bin, and Australia took full advantage to level the scores through a converted Michael Hooper try. Reece Hodge had a chance to win the match for the hosts late on, but missed a long-range penalty.
"Without playing the whole year, a lot of injuries throughout, sickness, Covid, and the whole lot, I couldn't be prouder of this team,” coach Mario Ledesma said.
Australia remain a work in progress
Australia began the Tri Nations hoping to make a statement on home soil, while attempting to wrestle back control of the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 2002.
Dave Rennie’s first match in charge of the Wallabies had been a creditable 16-16 draw against the All Blacks, however the new-look team lost 27-7 at Eden Park and in the opening match of the Tri Nations were made to pay for a slow start. Winger Filipo Daugunu was shown a yellow card less than three minutes in, and by the half-hour mark New Zealand had scored four tries.
Noah Lolesio crossed the whitewash early in the second half, but the All Blacks added two further tries to secure a 43-5 victory, a record winning margin in the fixture, and retain the Bledisloe Cup for an 18th successive year. “It was pretty dark, it’s still a bit dark, letting that opportunity slip and particularly the performance we put out there,” Wallabies captain Michael Hooper said. “It wasn’t up to the standard that we’ve set for ourselves.”
Hooper was hopeful Lachlan Swinton could provide something “New Zealand haven’t seen before in a Wallabies jersey” a week later. However, the flanker’s debut was less than 35 minutes old when he was shown a red card. Fortunately for Australia, Ofa Tu’ungafasi had already received his marching orders by then, and the scores were level at 8-8.
Three Reece Hodge penalties in the second-half kept the hosts in contention, and when Taniela Tupou crossed the whitewash they had a nine-point lead. Jordie Barrett scored a late try, but it couldn’t prevent the Wallabies securing a 24-22 win. “We saw plenty of character out there,” Rennie said. “[I’m] really proud of the steel that we showed and the impact we got off the bench to seal the win.”
Australia were unable to capitalise on victory, or the All Blacks’ shock loss to Argentina, though, as they let a 15-6 lead slip to draw 15-15 against Los Pumas. And ahead of the pairs’ meeting on the final day of the Tri Nations 2020, Hooper faced questions over his captaincy.
“It's a massive privilege to captain your country. I've been very lucky to do it on many occasions and I love that,” he said. “It's super rewarding post-game when you put in a performance you're proud of.”
Hooper endured a mixed night on the final evening in Parramatta. Sent to the sin-bin in the first half, the Wallabies captain burrowed over to score the try that brought his team level late on against Argentina. Reece Hodge missed a late penalty, however, and Australia had to settle for a 16-16 draw that left them bottom of the Tri Nations table.
Following the match, fly-half James O’Connor backed his captain’s decision to kick a series of second-half penalties to the corner rather than the posts. “We felt we had ascendancy. It was coming,” he said. “Seven points are better than three but we just couldn’t crack it. It’s Hoops’ call. We fed him information but at the end of the day, he makes a call and we back him.”