What we’ve learnt from the first weekend of International rugby
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The Wallabies kept Wales at arms length on Saturday night (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
It felt weird on Friday night, not building into the weekend on the usual diet of back-to-back Super Rugby games, but it’s always great to watch Test rugby at its very best.
To focus on one game in particular would almost seem unfair to the others played, such was the quality on show in Auckland, Brisbane, and Durban.
So instead, here are some things we’ve learnt over the weekend.
Brian O’Driscoll adds the same presence to the Irish backline as Stirling Mortlock does for the Melbourne Rebels.
Both are well into the twilight of their careers, but the extra something they add to their respective sides is only noticeable when they’re on the field and playing, rather than when they’re gone.
O’Driscoll played almost like a ‘second five’ in New Zealand terms, even when he is running in the 13 channel in attack. At numerous times against the All Blacks, Jonathan Sexton would have option runners at 10, Keith Earls would run the straight line at 12, and O’Driscoll would then find himself with more option runners in the wider midfield.
Against any other team than the All Blacks, this would be a really dangerous and useful alignment, and despite the scoreline, Ireland looked so much better than they did in the Six Nations with their inspirational skipper back on deck.
New Zealand may have found their next superstar winger.
If Julian Savea dreamt of a better debut than three tries, two line breaks, and 120-plus metres from eight runs, then I shudder to think how good his dream game would be.
Savea was a 50-50 winger in Super Rugby last year, emerged as a massively improved and much more rounded player in attack and defence this year, and after such a sparkling Test debut, now looks to have a very long All Black career ahead of him.
Debutants or not, the All Blacks juggernaut rolls on. Annoyingly so. Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, and Savea were all excellent. Savea I’ve mentioned already and Retallick showed he’s more than up to this level.
Aaron Smith has issued a massive challenge now to Piri Weepu for the rest of the international season. The day you have serious selection questions being asked about a fifty-Test veteran, your system is working well. And TJ Perenara waits in the wings…
Wales are masters of capitalising on broken play and they need to be when Rhys Priestland has a quiet night steering the attacking plays.
Alex Cuthbert’s 58th minute try had its origins in a kick reception from their own 22, from which Leigh Halfpenny went right to Priestland, who launched a towering midfield bomb to come down on halfway.
Cuthbert was able to bat the ball back to Priestland, and from the resulting ruck, Wales found themselves with something like an eight-on-four overlap out to the left. Four phases later and after working back right around 30 metres out from the Australian line, replacement centre Ashley Beck produced a stupendously good offload for Cuthbert to run it in untouched.
Similarly, a Gethin Jenkins kick through after Scott Higginbotham had the ball stripped from him led to Cuthbert regaining the ball from Digby Ioane, and a horrible Sam Warburton pass to Priestland butchered a four-on-one overlap, and what would’ve be a certain Welsh lead in the game.
Only minutes later, nine phases after Mike Phillips touched what would’ve been an out-on-the-full box kick from Will Genia, Genia put Pat McCabe through for the winning try.
Berrick Barnes is still a quality no.10. Despite a lot of protests and conjecture over the last week, there can be little doubt that Barnes is the best flyhalf in Australia at this very moment. Genia was a deserving Man of the Match on Saturday, and I’ll discuss him further next, but Barnes deserves a lot of praise for his game management in the impressive Wallabies win.
Barnes’ vision around the park both from hand and boot went a long way to Australia gaining the territorial advantage they did. It was great to see him staying flat in attack again for the most part, and both McCabe and Adam Ashley-Cooper, who are so much more dangerous when running onto the ball at the gain line, were superb in support.
Will Genia is the most influential player in Australian rugby in I don’t know how long.
The way he led the team around the park on Saturday night, the piece of individual brilliance to score that exceptional solo try just after halftime, the smarts to put McCabe through a gap to score untouched as Wales were in the midst of a remarkable comeback; this truly is a player at the top of his game.
I think it’s only a matter of ‘when’ Genia becomes an outstanding Wallaby captain. The Wallabies are blessed to have some excellent leaders in Horwill and Pocock, and even Barnes, but none of them give the team that ‘oomph’ that Genia provides when on song.
Tatafu Polota-Nau may kill someone. Or himself.
Seriously, how long can an approach to defence so free of self-preservation last?
Thankfully, Scott Williams suffered only “a facial laceration which it is hoped will not prevent him from being available for selection next week,” according to the Welsh late on Sunday. It could’ve been – and looked – so much worse.
The Wallabies have now played up to their no.2 world ranking, so what does that mean for this Saturday night in Melbourne?
If there’s been one constant of the Wallabies under Robbie Deans, it’s been their infuriatingly consistent inconsistency. The Wallabies often seem incapable of stringing two top-notch performances together.
If you’ll pardon the obvious, it was truly like watching a different side on Saturday night, after the debacle in Newcastle last Tuesday. But if history counts for anything, should Wallabies supporters now be nervous about the Second Test against Wales?
Even if Morne Steyn has an off night, South Africa can still grind out wins.
Though the scoreboard in Durban read 22-17, England were rather flattered by the final margin.
The contest was willing and gripping at times, even a touch spiteful at others (Dylan Hartley is back to his best, I see), but South Africa were always in control. New coach, Heyneke Meyer, talked up a simple game all last week, and that’s exactly how the Springboks played. Tellingly, they played the simple game way better than did England.
The all-Sharks front row was terrific, and the young locks Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger showed that life after Botha and Matfield is still going to be pretty rosy.
Overall, we were treated to a wonderful weekend of international rugby, and if the next two weekends produce more of the same, then this break in the middle of the Super Rugby season will quickly become a brilliant idea.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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