Admirable Wallabies and Boks still looking up at the benchmark
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The Wallabies were brought back down to earth by Scotland (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
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So the northern hemisphere is shrouded in gloom once more, its rugby inferiority being confirmed last weekend, with pace, power and intensity among the attributes identified as being lacking.
It’s not that simple, of course, with a reaction of some sort from Ireland, Wales or England being almost guaranteed over the next fortnight.
Those who dabble in the short-term investment markets, for example, might like to consider the odds on a Welsh win this weekend.
But what opinions can be formed about the southern hemisphere sides? Careful ones, given the limited evidence. But there was still enough to produce some tentative conclusions. Here are a few: New Zealand remain the benchmark; Australia and South Africa are hard to split; and tread carefully in Argentina – they beat Italy without a host of their top-line performers.
The difficulty in separating the Wallabies and Springboks is a result of the contrasting impulses that their performances provoked.
Australia were superior in their work on the ground, with Heinrich Brussow’s omission remaining a mystery, and wonderfully clinical at times.
A review of the tape slightly downgraded the huge influence of Will Genia on the result and upgraded that of David Pocock.
The Wallabies captain was not that far off the destructive presence that undid South Africa at the World Cup in Wellington, with the Welsh implying afterwards he was allowed similar leeway.
A hunger to feast on mistakes also ran through Australia’s performance, and was not solely restricted to their tries. Tatafu Polota-Nau’s piece of skill in the 20th minute – scooping up the ball from a Benn Robinson turnover with one hand and finding Genia with a weighted pass – was the sort of invention rarely seen in South Africa midfields, never mind front rows.
And which Wallabies fan did not take immense pleasure in Pat McCabe’s angled run to scythe through a defence put in four minds by the options contained in Genia’s rugby brain?
Throw in a determined kick-chase, speed to the breakdown and an improved kicking game to add to that ample list of positives.
But in Durban the Springboks were building a win on very solid foundations, even if creativity was a stranger.
At first glance a 22-17 victory against England might seem like uninspiring fare, but there was a quality about their set-piece work and a 20-minute spell of torrid forward intensity in the second half that hinted at their huge potential.
As usual, their lineout was strong, but it was their scrum superiority that raised eyebrows. Quite simply, England struggled to win any of their own ball and started to fall apart towards the end.
By contrast, a grain of salt must be taken with praise heaped on the Wallabies’ set-piece today. http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-union/union-news/deans-is-delighted-with-pack-mentality-20120612-2083e.html
There was an unconvincing note to the Wallabies’ work, especially on the Welsh put-in, where the visitors won two penalties and Sekope Kepu appeared to struggle against Gethin Jenkins. It is an area to watch on Saturday.
At the lineout, six throws were won, one was lost, one was not straight and one resulted in a free-kick to Wales. All sides have elements to work on, but for the Wallabies the set-piece remains pressing. Achilles is still flashing his heel.
The All Blacks were operating on a different planet to the Irish in Auckland, who had clearly decided a containment policy would be the greater of two evils and tried to play the Kiwis at their own up-tempo game.
While the result of that scheme was predictable, it did offer a look at the New Zealand game plan underpinning some of their bolder selections. It appears that sheer pace is the weapon selected by Steve Hansen to take the side forward, and it is not just restricted to foot speed.
At times lineout throws had been lobbed in while the television director was still admiring a replay, and new halfback Aaron Smith’s bullet passes created all manner of headaches for the Irish defence.
The new personnel have created more options at the lineout too – with four genuine jumpers in 2012 instead of two last year – although the jury remains out on whether they can compensate for the loss of Brad Thorn at scrum time.
Sean Fitzpatrick said of his 1995 side that there were the fastest and fittest but ultimately not the strongest. The Tests of that nature for the 2012 model are later in the calendar.
Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
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