SPIRO: Wallabies beware, the All Blacks and the Boks are coming!

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Bryan Habana's yellow card was a travesty, but Boks fans shouldn't get carried away. (AAP Image/NZN IMAGE, SNPA, David Rowland)

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Paul Cully, a rugby columnist colleague on The Roar and the Sydney Morning Herald, stated before the Wallabies’ series against France that the home side needed to win all three Tests to retain credibility as a challenger to the All Blacks and the Springboks.

After the Melbourne kickathon, it’s two down and one to go.

The Melbourne Test exposed a number of weaknesses in the Wallabies attacking systems. They couldn’t cross the French line. They had hardly any breaks. They kicked far too much and much too aimlessly.

Ewen McKenzie has tried to give the Wallabies attacking line some bulk with the inclusion of Will Skelton, who is playing his first Test, and the reinstatement of Wycliff Palu. These two players have the size and power to make significant dents in the defensive brick wall that France put up in Melbourne.

With France putting a 14-man front line defence and with the Wallabies, aside from Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale, without great speed to out-flank the line, the Wallabies had to go through it. But there was no one playing at Melbourne who could do this. Hence the stalemate and the continual kicking.

Skelton has won as many lineouts this season, two, as old Spiro can do one-handed push-ups. But he is quick for a huge man, has great hands and a lot of power that will get more and more effective as the baby-fat pours off him.

These things change from Test to Test but what last weekend’s results showed is that the Wallabies will need to be totally on their game in The Rugby Championship, especially against the All Blacks and the Springboks, if they want to continue their run of wins.

After a very poor performance in the first Test against England, the All Blacks played a lacklustre first half in the second Test, before exploding into brilliant action in the first 20 minutes of the second half. This quarter of outstanding rugby was to blow away any hopes England had of winning the Test, and the series.

Mick Cleary, the UK Telegraph‘s rugby writer, called the result “a one-point drubbing”. It was a “sobering night” for England players, coaches, supporters and (I would guess) rugby writers, Cleary opined. The All Blacks had “the game won by the 65th minute… and were in backslapping mode by then, and understandably so. They had well and truly rediscovered their mojo”.

I have quoted Cleary extensively because it is unusual for English rugby writers to lavish praise on the All Blacks. Cleary also seems to understand that they have an ambition to play “all-court rugby” (a phrase I have used frequently in the past) which, when it comes off, is devastatingly difficult to shut down.

The All Blacks have changed their style quite significantly this season. They use a lot more driving mauls, a tactic that was previously the domain of the Springboks. The beauty of the driving maul, which is the rugby equivalent of tennis’ top-spin shot from the back court, is that it ties up the opposition forwards and allows more one-on-one attacks for the backs.

Now for the Springboks. They demolished Wales 38-16 at Durban. This was as comprehensive a thrashing, especially in the first half, as you could expect. Outstanding for the Springboks were Bryan Habana and Will le Roux.

Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer said, “Willie is probably the best fullback in the world at the moment.”

He is right up there with the best, but I’d take Israel Folau and Ben Smith slightly above him. But le Roux, Habana and sevens rugby star Cornal Hendricks give the Springboks a cutting edge in the back three that they have rarely presented in recent times.

But will the Springboks play to this blinding speed and high skills the way the All Blacks do – to open up defences and crush oppositions? Occasionally against Wales the Springboks ran the ball from well inside their own half. But after half-time the old reflexes came into play and Morne Steyn’s kicking game went into overdrive.

The rest of the Springboks game was business as usual. A lot of kicking from Steyn. Very good set pieces, scrum and lineouts until a couple of lineouts were lost at the end of the Test. Some powerful driving mauls. And massive charges by the huge forwards and big backs.

All this power and bulk proved overwhelming for Wales, especially in the second half. But in the second half, what the doyen of South African rugby writers Dan Retief calls “the bulk, bash and boot” game, was far less successful.

South African rugby writers, too, make the point that the core of the Springboks are old: Bryan Habana is 31, Morne Steyn 30, Ruan Pienaar 30, Victor Matfield 37, Bakkies Botha 34, Jannie du Plessis 31, Gurthrö Steenkamp 33, Fourie du Preez 32.

Most of these players have two more seasons of strong rugby left in them. But this is going to be the test for Meyer and his old stars. If he can harness the obvious power his Springboks have all over the ground, with the blistering pace of the back three, then the rest of world rugby will need to watch out.

But this is a big ‘if’. The all-court attacking game generally takes South African teams out of their comfort zone. They don’t enjoy this type of rugby and readily return to the back-court game, where they play defensively but with great power.

Steve Walsh is refereeing the second Test at Mbombella Stadium, Nelspruit. He generally allows for lots of running. Just the thing for the old legs in the Springboks, not.

To round off where the Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks might be in their preparations for The Rugby Championship, we note Paul Cully’s Team of the Week after the last round of Tests:

1. James Slipper (Australia)
2. Bismarck Du Plessis (South Africa)
3. Owen Franks (New Zealand)
4. Brodie Retallick (NZ)
5. Sam Whitelock (NZ)
6. Scott Fardy (A)
7. Francois Louw (SA)
8. Jerome Kaino (NZ):
9. Fourie du Preez (SA)
10. Morne Steyn (SA)
11. Julian Savea (NZ)
12. Ma’a Nonu (NZ)
13. Conrad Smith (NZ)
14. Willie le Roux (SA)
15. Ben Smith (NZ)

Cully cheated slightly by picking le Roux out of his fullback position. However, his team is made up of two Wallabies, five Springboks and eight All Blacks.

Next weekend’s results will tell us whether these numbers reflect where the three sides are heading this season.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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