Best XV from Opening Weekend of Rugby Championship

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistAugust 17, 2014

Best XV from Opening Weekend of Rugby Championship

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    Only one try was scored in the opening two fixtures of this year's Rugby Championship, with South Africa the beneficiaries en route to a 13-6 win over Argentina, while New Zealand and Australia drew 12-12 in Sydney.

    The heavens opened over both ANZ Stadium and Loftus Versfeld, with wet weather creating miserable circumstances in which none of the Southern Hemisphere's mightiest powers could truly flourish.

    As such, the best XV from Saturday's action sees numerous players shifting outside the positions they may have lined up in, with standout performances difficult to come by in certain areas of both matchups.

    All statistics provided courtesy of ESPN Scrum.

Props: Marcos Ayerza and Sekope Kepu

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    Loosehead: Marcos Ayerza

    Daniel Hourcade will have been overjoyed to see his scrum hold its own so astutely in South African territory, and Marcos Ayerza in particular did a fine job of fending off Jannie du Plessis.

    The Pumas managed to give a good account of themselves at the set piece, and even though referee John Lacey made some questionable decisions in pulling up the visitors at times, Ayerza will know his technique should have brought more fortune.

    Tighthead: Sekope Kepu

    The temptation was to bring James Slipper over from loosehead into the No. 3 jersey of this week's line-up but actual tighthead Sekope Kepu enjoyed a good display against the All Blacks, too, and gets the nod as a result.

    In a 78-minute outing, the Waratahs star failed to miss a tackle and was busy in making his way around the soggy ANZ Stadium, playing his part in a Wallabies scrum that wasn't easily intimidated.

Hooker: Agustin Creevy

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    Agustin Creevy was something of a surprise selection by Hourcade for captain honours, but the decision was given some sense of validation after claiming a losing bonus point in Pretoria.

    South Africa's giants made his line-out throwing look worse than it actually was for periods, but for the large part Creevy was consistent with his input from the touchline.

    What's more, the 29-year-old took a leading grip in the loose and managed to make 20 metres' progress with ball in hand, the third-highest tally of any Argentinian.

Locks: Sam Whitelock and Lood De Jager

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    Sam Whitelock

    Industrious as ever, Sam Whitelock's tally of 15 tackles maintains the 25-year-old's reputation as a highly active member of Steven Hansen's pack, growing in importance to this All Blacks team.

    His form alongside Brodie Retallick was once again glittering, and in truth one could have picked either New Zealand lock for their stubborn defensive work in Sydney.

    Lood de Jager

    With Victor Matfield currently out of the picture through injury, Lood de Jager's most recent experience in a Springboks jersey will have given Heyneke Meyer a boost in his search for further lock prospects.

    In the loose, the young Cheetah was practically anonymous and made just three carries but no player collected more clean ball from the line-out than him on Saturday, and De Jager was also mobile in restricting Argentina's outside weapons.

Flankers: Marcel Coetzee and Michael Hooper

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    Blind-ide Flanker: Marcel Coetzee

    Willem Alberts was a late casualty to Heyneke Meyer's back row, leaving Marcell Coetzee to come in as deputy in the No. 7 jersey, but the Sharks grappler switches to blindside for the sake of our XV.

    Prior to kick-off, it was supposed that Francois Louw would be the main figure at the breakdown for South Africa, but Coetzee surprised to some extent in leading that fight, registering a match high of 14 tackles, at least six more than any other player. 

    Openside Flanker: Michael Hooper

    Michael Hooper's decision making was questionable on occasion in Sydney, the young captain opting to scrum near the end of the first half when a kick at goal would have brought his side closer in assailing the All Blacks' lead at the time.

    Aside from those leader duties, though, the starlet was his usual terrier-like self and made just one metre less (32) with the ball in hand than Wallabies full-back Israel Folau, notching an impressive 11 tackles.

    A special mention to Richie McCaw, who even through seeing a particularly penalty-ridden game, made more tackles than any other Rugby Championship participant in Week 1 with 20 to his name,

Number 8: Duane Vermeulen

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    After De Jager, Duane Vermeuelen was South Africa's most frequently used recipient at the line-out taking three balls at the set piece and aiding his side in setting that aspect of play as one of their foundations.

    Vermeulen can always be expected to take on a vast share of the carrying load when on Springboks duty, and whereas the likes of Wycliff Palu and Kieran Read struggled to make ground in Sydney, he grabbed a valuable 30 metres, beating three defenders.

Scrum-Half: Aaron Smith

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    The adverse conditions forced Aaron Smith to utilise his own running presence against the Wallabies more often than might have been the case in a drier setting, but it was by no means to the All Blacks' disadvantage.

    His 36 metres gained was the highest carrying total for any player at ANZ Stadium, and New Zealand were specifically unfortunate not to capitalise upon an early break down the left from Smith.

    A frustrating lack of possession in the latter stages of the match meant Hansen's No. 9 saw his impact limited toward the end of the fixture, but his work in tidying up grounded balls and securing fast possession was tireless.

Fly-Half: Nicolas Sanchez

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    It's a surprise that no club has opted to snap up the talents of Argentina fly-half Nicolas Sanchez as of yet, as the former Bordeaux playmaker displayed on Saturday just what an individual threat he can be on elite defences.

    Only one other player bested his total of metres carried (69) this week, and by innovating two clean breaks, beating four defenders in the process, the No. 10 constantly sought to put the Pumas on the front foot in foreign territory.

    Were it under sunnier circumstances, Sanchez may have seen his breaks put to more use as keeping a hand on the ball proved difficult when offloading, but his blitzing of Handre Polard worked well early on.

Wingers: Julian Savea and Willie Le Roux

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    Left Wing: Julian Savea

    Stellar wing performances were extremely few and far between this week thanks to the rain, and Julian Savea's few highlights against the Wallabies are enough to land him a place as the wide men struggled to get any say on matters.

    The young speedster showed a fine understanding when swatting down Pat McCabe's attempts on his flank, missing just one of his seven attempted tackles and communicating terrifically with full-back Ben Smith in defence for the most part.

    Savea also clocked up 27 carrying metres, with scrum-half Smith the only New Zealand player managing better.

    Right Wing: Willie le Roux

    He may be the best full-back in the world at present, but Willie le Roux shifts onto his now less-familiar wing position in order to make room for less malleable figures.

    Against the Pumas, the Cheetahs standout was comfortable under the high ball and time after time looked like Meyer's only source of inspiration, his deft boot only letting him down in the very late stages.

    Le Roux is our top ball-carrier this week with 86 metres made in possession, not missing any of his four tackles and unlucky not to score off a chip-and-chase that just escaped his grasp in the first half.

Centres: Kurtley Beale and Malakai Fekitoa

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    Inside Centre: Kurtley Beale

    With Sanchez at fly-half, Kurtley Beale moves into his more natural setting of inside centre for the purpose of the Week 1 line-up, his outing against New Zealand highlighting those qualities that make him more suited to midfield.

    Before going off for Bernard Foley late on, Beale kicked all 12 of Australia's points to cancel out Aaron Cruden's identical haul, and his success in finding space for the outside options quickly was a smoothly run operation by the large part. 

    Outside Centre: Malakai Fekitoa

    Conrad Smith's absence from proceedings is another Rugby Championship blow for New Zealand, but the evolution of Malakai Fekitoa went through another pace on Saturday as the Highlanders figurehead did a fine job filling in at outside centre.

    Unfortunately, the outing didn't feature much of his trademark line-break ability, but the performance was assured as Fekitoa was up to scratch in all four of his attempted tackles, keeping the Wallabies' back-line technicians at bay.

    The budding international star also averaged five metres per carry, making 25 from five attempts in total.

Full-Back: Israel Folau

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    It wasn't the kind of pedigree we've become used to when linking Folau with Team of the Week honours, but the Waratahs talisman still found a way of sticking out as far as the numbers go.

    Thirty-three metres gained from 11 carries, with five defenders beaten, three turnovers forced and not one tackle missed on the day.

    The likes of Beale and Toomua did their best to drag the full-back into the fray from deep, but Folau still weaved some magic of his own in the stormy surroundings.