I have been fortunate in recent weeks, managing to see plenty of grassroots rugby first hand and enjoying the best of New Zealand (NZ) Rugby: club, ITM pre-season games, so anytime you can include the Bledisloe Cup in the mix then it must be a good week.
Matches in this Rugby Championship are played at the elite level of our sport, with incredible levels of skill and dedication on display but I enjoy as much the J2 age grade sides throwing their small frames about; they play with passion and self pride but no matter which level it is, we see the same commitment. This is a quality that other nations try to manufacture but we have it ‘in spades’ throughout the game down under. And when you watch the kids play, you can see where we all found that initial love for the game.
When we think of the Bledisloe Cup and the game we love, some of us look through rose tinted glasses. It is a natural characteristic of New Zealand rugby fans, myself included. I have been known to be over confident and once again Sydney proved to be an under-estimated hurdle. I had ‘counted my chickens before they were hatched’ and Stephen Moore and his men managed to pull the rug from under our feet.
The All Blacks in fact only have 5 matches for the national side to build into their preparations for this years Rugby World Cup, only one more after this game in fact. So the clock is quickly running short for Richie McCaw and his side to gain some momentum. By the time of this next game in Auckland, we all have to ask the same question “Was that enough preparation to be ready for September/October?”
Sanzar Rugby Championship
South Africa v Argentina
Venue : Kings Park, Durban
Score : 25-37
For many, this was not the key match in the championship, so some media dispatched it as not having as much to play for? You bet you it did.
Argentina celebrated 50 years of touring the African continent, with members of the ‘Originals’ 1965 side sitting in the stands to support the 2015 Pumas in their efforts to win their very first match ever against the Springboks – played 19, zero wins. They even wore a specially designed shirt that recalled the tall collars of days gone past too, and if that wasn’t enough inspiration, their opening 20 minutes was about as perfect a start as they could have dreamed of.
Leading 3-14 due to some adventurous early play that saw them cross twice, they just never gave the Springboks another chance to claw back that big lead. Handre Pollard was off sorts and with him they play with too much like a formula, a bit too robotic and while their forwards are capable; Lood de Jager left his mark on the paddock with a good try, it was combated by a powerful frontrow and the typical flamboyant style of the South Americans is exciting to watch. They gave their all and expressed their determination on the field.
Constant pressure in the scrum meant Springbok first phase play was difficult to mount and a disjointed midfield had no attacking threat. The home side were continually peppered by Argentine attacks that soon blew out to a 13-27 score, when a strange moment saw a third try scored by Juan Imhoff. A stoppage in play was called after a knock-on, medics attending to players when the match official blew ‘time on’ without much regard for the home side, and a quick tap saw Imhoff cross in the corner.
That was frustrating for home fans, and even as Willie le Roux crossed and Bryan Habana sealed his 58th test try to bring the scores closer, it wasn’t enough to halt a seminal moment in Los Pumas history. They believed in themselves, and such results will threaten to derail this South African teams chances at the World Cup. It took this Argentine side off the bottom of the table in Rugby Championship standings for the first time too and we should applaud their attitude to continually improve in this competition.
Heyneke Meyer was quoted by the ESPN Scrum website in saying “We need to give credit to Argentina, who outplayed us today. They delivered a great performance and deserved the win. We could not adapt and sadly, we were just not good enough today” That will be a question that now hangs over all Springboks rugby fans.
Australia v New Zealand
Venue : ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Score : 19-27
Both these sides carry proud histories, and in fact this was the 151st clash between the two Australasian powerhouses. From their first encounter 112 years ago, a respect has grown that is built on similar values and aggressive, ball in hand play. The Bledisloe Cup sometimes takes precedence over the Rugby Championship, and some All Blacks have never tasted defeat to their ‘western neighbors’ so that added an extra layer of intensity.
Our histories maybe be similar, but the rugby landscape must constantly changes. Over these last several years, All Black games won in good and indifferent fashion. Our winning habits are easy to rely on before the goal is really accomplished, and sadly I have to say on Saturday night we found that moral rang true yet again. Our side was delivered a harsh lesson in reality when a more determined Wallabies team outplayed them in Sydney.
That all transpired through a staunch first half when both sides tried to test the other, some fine touches by both teams backlines came close, nearly creating points often but that was along with some messy play that was disturbing to watch. I’ve mentioned the five matches, so after four hit-outs you would expect Steve Hansen’s men to be assured of their systems and practices.
It did not take long for the match official Wayne Barnes to influence the match though, sending Sekope Kepu to the bin for not retreating ten metres. Yes, it seemed like it would reduce the challenge but with great commitment, the Wallabies manged to hold-out the All Blacks and even used the ball with confidence more often than you’d have believed. Israel Folau taking repeated high ball and the Australian flankers doing everything to upset the World Champion side.
That was directly related to the experimental decision from Wallabies Coach Michael Cheika who seemed to ‘lay all his cards’ on one selection move – to play both Michael Hooper and David Pocock (playing in the unfamiliar number eight position) It more than paid him back in rewards, as they challenged Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read to match that intensity, and for once the All Blacks were left with little answers. McCaw was active as usual, but even McAwesome himself could not deflect the input the two Wallaby flankers had over their opposites.
The Wallabies even stopped the All Black machine from scoring just before halftime; an action that they are very confident in converting regularly. Amazingly, it was just 3-6 at halftime as no solid chances were converted and you wondered if these players would generate some continuity when they returned to the field.
The action returned in the second half, a total of five tries being scored After Nehe Milner-Skudder complimented his first test try with an even better second, the scores were 17-19 and a twelve year dominance of the Bledisloe Cup might have looked probable until the Wallabies brought on Nic White, and he wrote his name in the games history with a ten point haul in 12 quick minutes. Firstly through a 50 plus metre penalty kick and then he drove a wedge into the All Blacks grip on the cup when he sidestepped falling defensive lines and extended the lead to 27-19.
It was all just a little too much to counter, the vaunted NZ side attempted their traditinal comeback but threw away any chance with critical errors. So there was no ‘Get out of Jail’ card tonight – it’s true, they only get one of those each season.
Statistics were against the visitors too. Missed tackles: 23 for NZ, something that happens only rarely. Turnovers won: Nine for the Wallbies and seven for NZ, but that did not reflect the aggression used by the home side that seemed to catch many All Blacks players unprepared. And the home side also had much better place kicking to rely on, Matt Giteau featuring prominently as he outplayed both Sonny Bill-Williams in defence, and Dan Carter in kicking success. His return is a bonus for the Australians and the win removed the gloss off Carters 1500th point in all tests, and McCaw’s extraordinary feat of 141 test caps.
Hansen remarked after the clash that they lost the battle “over the ball, and underneath the bodies.” That translates to not having men immediately there to clear-out the ruck, they did not negate the clear threat in the loose and on nine occasions their opponents bested this heavily favoured team. It also meant he wanted his players to get their hands around the ball-and-man, try to hold up the player. It just didn’t happen as easily as we saw against Argentina, and full credit to a special display from a quietly celebrating Australian team. Beating the Springboks and All Blacks in succession is an almost perfect plan for this side, even with next weeks match to play for. They will be super confident now, so don’t let them get a chance at Eden Park.
A bright point (lets not forget about those) Milner-Skudder had a great debut match. The black jersey runs in his families genes, and similarly to his Uncle George Skudder [Wales, 1969] they both scored tries on their debut for the All Blacks, and Milner-Skudder can be happy with his performance. He took his limited chances and in the final spell especially, his determination was evident when he crossed for his second try with possibly three defenders to beat. That’s impressive, and he could have a long career ahead of him in the All Black environment.
So, where does that leave us with six weeks to go until the Rugby World Cup?
Well, the key thing to take out of this result is that ‘no team can be reliant on past accolades to help them win’. But I’m not condemning this current side, by no means. They are still packed with players that are both fantastically experienced while also including bright young talent to select from. No, I just want them to be self-aware that it’s knockout football from now on [including the next deciding Bledisloe Cup encounter] History will count for little, so the game is decided in the 80 minutes played on the ground.
Wayne Smith, Grant Fox, Stu Foster, Mick Byrne, Mike Cron , Gilbert Enoka, et all. This team must regroup quickly and help steel this side by Saturday night, otherwise the wheels will begin to loosen. They only ever had 5 matches to pull a top performing side together, and now they have to begin somewhat. To reboot that All Blacks formula that took this side to the first unbeaten International season in professional rugby .
They need to be wary of an attitude that took them to heights that seemed to equal prior campaigns – number one ranked side leading up to the World Cup year, and not performing on the big stage/away from home. That mentality has only transferred into the one successful World Cup crown, so they need to inspire their men with intelligent first phase moves, percentage based play that negates the barrage received in Sydney. A fresh plan to involve the backline more, possibly from a new voice at pivot or inside centre. Smart positional play and to reinforce a winning environment.
The fact they are ranked number one in World Rugby means nothing if there is only one game left to play. This group need to create that pressure now, before it is too late to make those changes (when on tour or at the qualifying stages of the tournament) so the heat has been turned up on this World Champion team. And as coach Steve Hansen mentioned “She’s on full bore”.
His laconic sayings are good soundbites for nightly news segments, but for the first time since he took over from Sir Graham Henry, his coaching credentials will be on show. Can he turn this side around? Of course, it is as much about his motivation and the demands he places on the team, as it is from the players performance on the park.
I’d bet that they ‘bounce back’ like normal, but one would presume that bigger lessons need to be learned this Saturday that will mean more in October. Lesson that help them to meet all our expectations, and maybe that is the bigger issue? Nearly all of this teams supporters and fans ‘expect them to succeed’. Is that expectation going to be a weight that this team cannot hold up? We will find out more come quarter past nine next Saturday night.
ITM Cup: Southland v Auckland – Invercargill. Thursday 13th August.
The first match proper in this years competition will see nine weeks of rugby played throughout the country in an exciting and well scheduled draw. Teams can see themselves play on a Friday night, then play the next Wednesday night and finish the week with a traditional daytime Sunday clash. It will have something for everyone and even while we still watch out for International test matches and friendly games to build-up towards the Rugby World Cup, this level of rugby introduces the stars of tomorrow – Milner-Skudder shined for Championship holders the Manawatu Turbos before reaching the heights of the Bledisloe Cup. And that is part of the reason why this is “the game we love.”
Future fixtures: Saturday 15th August – New Zealand v Australia – Eden Park, Auckland. | Ireland v Scotland, Dublin | England v France, London | Argentina v South Africa, Buenos Aires