It is that wonderful time of the rugby year, when the matches start to carry that extra bit of significance.
There is a touch more tension in the air, the tackles contain a little extra bite and the big players start to remind the Test selectors that they are still the main men.
The Brumbies vs Waratahs game and the Crusaders v Reds clash this weekend will come under the watchful eye of the national selectors.
Furious notes would have been taken at the New South Wales v Crusaders match at Allianz Stadium, particularly on the scrum battle, in which the home side acquitted itself well.
Each side was stacked with caps.
The temptation, therefore, to describe these type of encounters as ‘Test-like’ is compelling.
I have fallen into the trap myself, drawing too much significance from the Reds’ group-stage victory over the Crusaders last year in a column for RugbyHeaven. We all make mistakes.
But what stood out from that Waratahs v Crusaders game, above a host of interesting subplots, was the following: it was a good Super Rugby game and nothing more. The pace was admirable, but not breathtaking. But the game made it clear that the gap between Super Rugby and the Test rugby is significant, and constant.
There were a number of performances over the weekend that bolstered that view.
Tom Carter is a committed, experienced midfielder who has carved out a decent career in the hardest provincial competition in the world, but when that little extra is required of him he falls short.
A lack of pace was exposed twice by Robbie Fruean on defence and a short inside ball in a first-half attacking move was poorly executed.
Dean Mumm was another who made Fruean look exceptionally good in the first half as the giant midfielder exposed him on the outside.
On the other side of the coin for the Waratahs, Tatafu Polota-Nau gave us all a glimpse of the unbridled aggression required at Test level with some brutal carries of the ball and a central role in the lineout drive that led to Wycliff Palu’s try.
His attraction to confrontation was mirrored in the Crusaders by the exceptional Kieran Read, who clearly outpointed Palu in the battle of the No. 8s and has grown into a classic All Blacks loose forward.
The pair’s performances stood out as genuine Test quality, as the others around them operated at the next level down, for reasons of ability and occasion. It is impossible to bring Bledisloe intensity every week – both mentally and physically – in a long provincial campaign of weekly skirmishes.
It seems churlish to say so after two tries and a performance that hogged the headlines, but Fruean’s display was further evidence of the yawning gap. The big man is a wonderful sight in full flight but no more closer to the All Blacks midfield in 2012 than he was last year.
He was to blame for the Waratahs’ first try after a bad defensive mis-read on Adam Ashley-Cooper and ignored a simple inside pass to Dan Carter in the lead-up to Zac Guildford’s try.
Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui and Ma’a Nonu are stronger options and the All Blacks selectors will have to start considering Carter as an option at No.12 for certain game situations if the form of Aaron Cruden and Tom Taylor continues. The trend of the game in 2012 – more tactical kicking and a premium on territory – also points towards such a consideration.
Fruean’s supporters might contest the inclusion of Nonu in that list due to the struggles of the Blues but they are dreaming. It has been a recurring theme of New Zealand rugby in recent years that senior players have drifted through the first part of the year and find an extra gear when the All Blacks jersey is produced.
The phenomenon is not as marked on the Australian side of the ditch but I suspect it is the case at the Reds. There had to be a comedown from 2011’s emotional high and while this year’s side is trying, Will Genia’s performance in Auckland showed that class acts can move into higher gears when the time is right.
Knowing the gap between the two arenas, it is therefore far too simple to say that the poor state of the Australian conference indicates a bad year ahead for the Wallabies. Super Rugby has many admirable traits, but it is not a shadow Test arena.