What have the North learnt after another week in the South?
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All Blacks player Aaron Smith gets past the tackle of Brian O'Driscoll. AFP PHOTO / Michael Bradley
I’m still too raw in this whole rugby writing game to have gained a northern hemisphere arch-rival for myself just yet, and I’m still not completely sure about just how many UK scribes Spiro refers to when he speaks of “the usual suspects”.
So suffice to say, this isn’t going to be an argumentative “South is better than the North” piece.
There’s good reason for these articles to be written currently, sure, but I’ll leave that for those more inclined to enjoy such muckraking and bear poking.
I was, however, very interested to see how or if the three northern hemisphere sides could come back from the three fairly convincing wins endured at the hand of the old Tri-Nations the weekend before last. It made for an interesting way of watching three pretty good Tests over the course of Saturday and early Sunday morning.
In the early stages in Johannesburg, it really appeared as though England had learnt nothing, and may have even forgotten a few things from the week before in Durban.
Chris Ashton was found horribly out of position when Brian Habana broke out in the first few minutes, and then bizarrely, England left themselves with no-one on the short side of a 5m scrum, only to see Willem Alberts stroll over for the simplest try he’ll ever score as the ball went straight through the scrum tunnel.
Before the game was a quarter through, England found themselves three tries down, with a feeling that the gates might be about to open more than they already were.
England did play well to get back as close as they did though. Recalled flyhalf Toby Flood created more opportunities in midfield, and Ben Foden looked more dangerous at fullback than he did wasted on the wing with a book in the First Test.
But as it was in Durban, South Africa were never really in any great danger in this match. The Springbok defence answered most questions posed of them, often with interest, and the scoreboard probably doesn’t reflect how dominant the ‘Boks were. The stats do, though, with South Africa enjoying 60%-plus territory and the majority of possession, too.
Wales, on the other hand, can quite possibly consider themselves unlucky. In a game where the lead changed nine times, and eight times in the second half alone, it truly looked as though a losing streak that stretched back to the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1969 was about to come to an end.
And perhaps, if Rhys Priestland didn’t kick downfield in the 79th minute when the pick-and-drive was all that was required, we’d heading to the Football Stadium this coming Saturday afternoon for a decider. Instead, the engraving has already been done.
It had all gone so well for Wales, too. After being shell-shocked at how quickly the Wallabies started in Brisbane, Wales were on the front foot from the outset, winning the initial contest from the kick-off, and before many a patron had taken their seat, George North caught some Wallaby forwards napping to barge over from close range.
As it was last week against the Brumbies, the Welsh defensive line was as resolute as it was impenetrable, and their midfielders were particularly focussed on getting in the faces of their Australian opponents whenever the Wallabies looked to go wide.
Twice in the first half, the Wallabies got to 14 phases, yet nothing came of the attack either time. On both occasions, Will Genia had to delay ruck clearances so that forward runners could be reset, and the method of attack reviewed and recalibrated. Ashley Beck’s misread as Berrick Barnes got outside of Sam Warburton in the lead-up to Rob Horne’s try was one of few Welsh errors in a cracking first forty.
The second half became one of those constant ebb-and-flow battles that we love in Test rugby. Just as one side got in front, they found themselves under pressure, and the errors started mounting on both sides.
The Welsh pushed their scrum dominance further once Ben Alexander came on for Benn Robinson, and the last fifteen minutes saw both sides winning penalties from the set piece. Barnes missed a penalty shot at goal that he would normally expect to slot; such was the tiring effect of cramp and sudden fatherhood.
Barnes made way for Mike Harris, and like Kurtley Beale in Bloemfontein in 2010, Harris’ Wallaby career will forever be remembered for a clutch kick in its infancy. The series may be done, but Wales still yearn for that scalp in Australia. And that alone should ensure a thrilling final Test in Sydney.
The story of the weekend must surely be Ireland pushing the All Blacks in Christchurch.
From the outset, it was noticeable how much more involved and committed the Irish forwards were in defence. That’s not to say that they weren’t involved and committed in the First Test in Auckland, just that the lessons handed to them by their opponents had been heeded well and truly in the week since.
Throughout the first half, throughout most of the game actually, Ireland committed numbers well to the breakdown, which helped stifle New Zealand’s counter-ruck that was so successful the week before. Ireland also took the time they needed to reset their forward pods for the pick-and-drive too, which allowed them to maintain and build the phases a lot better than they did at Eden Park.
All this contributed enormously to them making metres, and creating opportunities.
Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray played the Irish backs a lot wider, and a lot flatter, and this in itself asked more questions of the All Blacks than they managed previously. There is still the issue of being able to finish those questions, but the All Blacks’ defence was put under pressure all game.
Most importantly, Ireland didn’t panic when New Zealand hit back, as they inevitably do. Instead, they maintained their composure, took points when offered, and scrapped like they may never have scrapped in 107 years of history between the two sides. If Ireland-New Zealand history was ever to be made, its best chance was Saturday night.
For mine, there were two key replacements in the second half. Ronan O’Gara coming on for Gordon D’Arcy pushed Sexton to 12, and this gave Ireland even more width in attack, and with more option runners in midfield. Fullback Rob Kearney featured prominently on the inside run as a result.
The second was Ben Franks coming on for brother Owen. As soon as this change was made, Ireland gained scrum ascendency, and with that came a real momentum shift.
When metaphorical push came to literal Irish shove, Ben Franks was suddenly doing his very best impersonation of Ben Alexander. I had always assumed that whenever the Crusaders scrum went down under pressure it was Wyatt Crockett doing the folding, but perhaps I need to pay closer attention to the brothers.
This momentum shift started doing funny things to the All Blacks’ composure too. Richie McCaw made two or three handling errors in the second half alone; Israel Dagg undid his excellent chase by barrelling through Kearney shoulder first, after the Irish no.15 had kicked.
Ali Williams’ first impact on the match was to give away a stupid penalty at the back of the ruck, and to then give away another ten metres by reacting when one of the Irish props thanked him for his generosity.
You could almost see them unravelling.
Ultimately, Daniel Carter would kick the field goal to steal the win in dying minutes, and once again, you couldn’t miss the heartbreak in Brian O’Driscoll’s post-match interview.
That said, it could still have been worse for ‘BOD’. He could’ve had the same ridiculously inane questions posed to him that Sam Warburton suffered.
“Will it be possible to get the guys up for the last Test after tonight?”
Please, spare me.
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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