New Zealand successfully retained the Rugby Championship title, and with it the Bledisloe Cup for at least another year, following a comprehensive 38-7 victory over Australia in Melbourne on Saturday.
It was a further sign the three-time world champions are moving in the right direction under head coach Ian Foster just over a month out from Rugby World Cup 2023.
Whether they go to the tournament in France as the world’s best team remains to be seen – for now that honour belongs to Ireland – but their sixth straight win over the Wallabies has moved them up to second place, at Les Bleus’ expense, in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings
Australia led 7-5 around the half-hour mark thanks to Rob Valetini’s try but the All Blacks ruthlessly punished Marika Koroibete’s sin-binning to turn around with a 19-7 advantage after tries from Shannon Frizell, Codie Taylor and Will Jordan.
After that, the Wallabies supporters in the crowd of 83,944 had little to cheer about as New Zealand added three more tries after the break through Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea, and Rieko Ioane in a devastating eight-minute burst.
New Zealand only gained 0.45 points for the win but that was still enough to lift them above France as they now have 90.77 rating points compared to Les Bleus’ 90.47. Ireland’s lead at the top has been cut to just 1.05 points.
Despite the defeat, Australia hang on to eighth place in the rankings.
South Africa are also unmoved, in fourth, after they held on for a 22-21 win against Argentina in Johannesburg.
The Springboks scored tries through Eben Etzebeth, Damien de Allende and Manie Libbok, who also kicked the remainder of their seven points, while Mateo Carreras and Gonzalo Bertranou crossed late on for Los Pumas.
Santiago Carreras kicked 13 points but was left to rue two second-half penalty misses that, had they gone over, could have given them only their second win over the Springboks on South African soil.
Instead, they had to settle for a losing bonus-point and third place in The Rugby Championship, matching their previous best finish in the competition.
FIJI CLIMB THREE PLACES
Away from The Rugby Championship, it was a significant weekend for Fiji as they climbed back into the world’s top 10 for the first time since the start of Rugby World Cup 2019 following a 33-19 win over Samoa in Apia.
Fiji had made wholesale changes to the team that defeated Tonga the week before but quickly settled to race into a 17-0 lead. A double from Tevita Ikanivere came either side of Iosefo Masi’s score before Samoa hit back through former Wallaby, Christian Leali'ifano.
Selesitino Ravutaumada added a fourth try for Fiji in a commanding first half but Samoa restored some pride with tries from Tumua Manu and captain Fritz Lee after the break.
Leali'ifano only kicked two of his four attempts at goal whereas Caleb Muntz, the only player to retain his position in the new-look Fiji team, was successful with five from seven.
With 1.51 points gained, Fiji’s improved rating of 76.86 points has seen them trade places with Samoa while also leapfrogging Japan and Georgia.
Japan managed to get back to winning ways against Tonga at Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka.
The Brace Blossoms led 13-5 at half-time after tries from Jone Naikabula and Amato Fakatava with Tonga’s captain and first-ever caps half-centurion, Sonatane Takulua replying for the visitors.
Two penalties from the boot of William Havili saw Tonga close the gap to just two points but Fiji then managed a fourth try through Semisi Masirewa.
Tonga refused to lie down as they went in search of their first win over the Brave Blossoms in Japan in 10 years, and they were rewarded with a try for Samiuela Moli.
A penalty from Rikiya Matsuda and a last-ditch tackle from replacement wing, Kotaro Matsushima, ensured Japan held on for a tense, and much-needed 21-16 victory,
While clearly a morale-booster after a run of defeats, the victory did not improve Japan’s position in the rankings and they stay in 12th with Tonga still 15th.
GRAHAM SHINES ON SCOTLAND COMEBACK
Elsewhere, Scotland opened their Rugby World Cup 2023 warm-up schedule with a 25-13 win over Italy at Murrayfield.
A brace of tries from the fit-again Darcy Graham and one from back-row Josh Bayliss saw them extend their winning streak over the Azzurri to 13 matches.
Monty Ioane, who missed the Six Nations, marked his return to the Italy side with a try. Tomasso Allan came up with the assist and converted the try as well as kicking two penalties.
Again, it was a result that had no impact on the rankings with Scotland still fifth and Italy 14th.
Meanwhile, Uruguay and Chile both played their part in a thrilling South American contest in Montevideo, Los Teros edging it 26-25.
Santiago Videla kicked Chile into an early 3-0 lead but Los Cóndores then lost two men to the sin-bin and that proved costly.
A penalty try was awarded for the first yellow card offence and Bautista Basso’s converted try added another seven points to Uruguay’s total while Los Cóndores were numerically challenged.
Once back up to 15 players, Chile scored next through Videla’s boot but a third Uruguay try, scored by Manuel Ardao, sent Uruguay into the break 19-6 up.
Replacement back Raimundo Martinez scored within six minutes of his introduction onto the field of play as Chile struck back at the start of the second half.
And the score stayed at 19-11 to Uruguay until 10 minutes from time when Chile set up a grandstand finish with a try from Iñaki Ayarza, which Videl improved to make it a one-point game.
A frenetic finish to the match saw both sides score converted tries, Uruguay through Tomás Inciarte and Chile through Matías Garafulic, as Los Teros held on for the slenderest of victories.
The result had no impact on the rankings with Uruguay remaining in 17th place and Chile five places further back in 22nd.
Meanwhile, Namibia began their RWC 2023 preparations with a 34-27 defeat at home to an Argentina XV.
Welwitschias head coach Pieter de Villers will no doubt be delighted with the way his side fought back from 26-8 down at half-time and also the try-scoring prowess of hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld who grabbed his second hat-trick in just over a year.