I never actually planned to write anything much today except for my blog but having watched the two Rugby Championship games I felt compelled to give a perspective from the Northern Hemisphere. Not that I imagine there will be much interest down there about what a Pom thinks.
Incidentally I don’t understand why it’s us that are called Poms – it’s supposedly a mnemonic for ‘prisoners of his majesty’ – and I always thought that was you – or at least your ancestors!
No matter – I settled down to watch the back to back games at 8 o’clock this morning (our time) just to see what the top two sides in the world looked like, followed by the ‘other’ Southern Hemisphere teams.
It was easy to see why the All Blacks and the Springboks are ranked at number 1 and 2 – the physicality, pace and ferocity of the play right from the outset was breath-taking.
The Springboks only seem to have one game plan and that is to dominate the opposition physically – brutally if possible. They made their intentions clear at the first scrum where the All Black front row popped out like corks from a bottle.
Of course the New Zealand forwards responded but it is fair to say that in all the set pieces the Springboks edged it for most of the game – well at least while they still had 15 players on the park.
The All Blacks matched them in the mauls and loose play and Hansen’s choice of Read, Messam and Cane was more than justified. He was right to resist leaving out Luatua in favour of Cane and not trying to level the huge size advantage of the Springbok back row. The All Blacks out muscled them – and that takes some doing!
If you looked at any of the Springbok 22 there are only about a handful who you can identify with any certainty as to what number shirt they have on their back – they are pretty much all stocky and ripped.
The statistics showed that the Springbok pack were only 35 kilos heavier than the New Zealand 8 – during the anthem line up they looked bigger – maybe coach Meyer orders shirts that are one size too small so that they all look like they are about to burst out of them like the ‘Incredible Hulk’
They are physically intimidating – their problem is that outside the set scrums and lineouts they only have a one dimensional attack. Roughly speaking this involves tuck it under your arm, pick out an opponent and run at him like a bull elephant. To be fair against most opposition this will work admirably well and will wear them down to great effect. New Zealand are not most opposition.
If there’s not a lot of subtlety to their attack – there’s not much more to their defensive play either. They tackle hard and with brutal intent. Again not much wrong there except they frequently play on the edge.
Spectators love to see big hits – it makes the crowd gasp and is a major attraction for the game. South Africa lead the world in big hits – the problem is too often they also lead with elbows and knees. Brutality and physicality are great – savagery is not.
Which brings us to Du Plessis – was he unlucky to get a yellow for the tackle on Dan Carter? – probably – as the slow motion replays showed. But when your reputation (as a player and a team) goes before you, then you’re not going to get many benefits of the doubt from the referee – especially when the star player you clattered is being helped from the pitch. It looks too much like deliberate targeting.
But what really sunk the Bismarck is the stupid hit on Messam with only half the game gone – having already been carded (albeit marginally) it made no sense to do that – South Africa’s first choice hooker played less than half an hour yesterday.
The All Blacks were already in the ascendancy and they were always likely to win – but the sending off effectively ended the match as a contest.
Ironically the Springboks attack started to function late in the second half – much too late. Admittedly they were a man up at the end of the game – even though they were down to 14 themselves. But all at once they started to move the ball – they looked dangerous and against another team they might even have scored and made the score line look better. But the All Blacks are not another team and the 13 held out without much trouble.
It was as if someone had told them the story about Brian Clough (the best football manager England never had) – after one bad game by his side he took his play maker aside and made him run round the corner flag dribbling the ball – then he made him run the same track without the ball. He asked him if there was any difference – the player said – yes I was faster without it. Clough simply replied “pass the fucking thing!”
Suddenly the Springboks remembered they could pass!
Meyer should have a poster of Clough’s words on the changing room door.
Steve Hansen on the other hand will be very pleased – there were a lot of outstanding performances – Beauden Barrett looked the part (even though he’s probably only third choice) and New Zealand seem to have taken over the fly half production line that used to be owned by Wales.
In a plethora of strong performances it’s hard to pick out individuals but the whole back row (plus Luatua when he came on) were way ahead of their counterparts, Conrad Smith was .. well – Conrad Smith and his namesake Aaron was just as sharp. A word for Ma’a Nonu too – not entirely perfect yesterday, but how the hell has this guy not got a Super 15 contract? I wish he was English! Actually I wish a lot of the guys playing yesterday (in both shirts) were English!
Anyway Super 15s loss will be Clermont’s gain.
At about 9.45 am I got my breath back and settled down to watch the other Championship game where the teams ranked 4th and 10th faced up.
There was a drop in physicality, skill and intensity compared to what had gone before.
To be fair the conditions were pretty awful and it looked more like Perth in Scotland (only wetter) for most of the game. It was easy to see why the wooden spoon will belong to one of these sides.
The Wallaby scrum did better than the previous week but it was still pretty ugly and it does not augur well for the two away games to follow in Newlands and Estadio Gigante.
By contrast the Australian pack competed well in the loose where Hooper was everywhere and they performed better in the line out than they had done against the Springboks but they didn’t score in the second half and could easily have slipped to a fifth straight defeat.
But a win is a win and McKenzie will be relieved to have that monkey off his back.
Again the Wallaby backline looked dangerous with the ball in hand – Folau took his try well, Quade underlined that he can tackle as well as pass, Adam Ashley Copper and Leali’ifano were solid and James O’Connor showed a hunger and aggression that has been missing recently.
Nic White did well in his first start and certainly didn’t look out of place – but he’s no Will Genia – not yet anyway.
Ewen McKenzie now has two weeks to get ready for the last two games, but he will be more worried that he only has two years to fix his pack before the World Cup and the ‘Group of Death’ opens.
Wales and England won’t be too scared by the Wallaby 8 but they will rightly be more than concerned about the Aussie backline.
So – that’s the view from my couch in the Northern Hemisphere – you may not agree with my view but I did predict the results of these games in my blog on Friday – www.rugbyoldbloke.wordpress.com –
Since there are also two big games in the Rugby Championship this weekend I’m going to add them to my predictions –
The All Blacks over the Springboks – though not by many
Wallabies to take the Pumas – but by even fewer!
Mind you I got most of my predictions in the Aviva wrong – as you’ll see when I send in my review of the weekend’s games!
A final thought – No coach will ever say that he’s scared of the opposition – he talks about respect.
Well – when it comes to the All Blacks and the Springboks – be respectful… be very very respectful!