Former All Black scrumhalf, and now Sky New Zealand commentator Justin Marshall, never gives the impression he is reluctant to give the opposition credit when part of the TV commentary team.
Nor does he have a propensity for making outrageous statements, at least not ones that he does not sincerely believe may actually be true.
Indeed, some in New Zealand even think that at times his commentary goes too far trying to be balanced, and that he sometimes gives the opposition too much credit when it isn’t really due.
Whatever your opinion of Marshall, it is fair to say that for the most part, completely outrageous claims are not really his style.
So when I read the following headline to an article he wrote on the match between the All Blacks and Argentina in The New Zealand Herald, which reads “Justin Marshall: How good? All Blacks second best could roll the rest” it made me stand up and take notice.
Is he right?
In the article Marshall writes “…I was standing during the anthems, looking around at the (near sold out) crowd dressed up and singing and thought, ‘Boy, Zealand rugby is in a healthy state’”
He goes on to discuss the nature of the All Black win with some interesting observations about the impact of the bench.
“A lot of people will say what a great impact the bench had, but I think it was still combined with excellent performances from starters such as Ryan Crotty, Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Israel Dagg and Sam Cane, before he went off.
“Also, if you re-watch the Test, focus on the performance of Jerome Kaino. He was outstanding. It again reinforces how much depth this team has. The All Blacks’ second team could probably beat the other top four teams in the world.”
A bold claim you may say, but he does qualify his statement with the adverb “probably”.
It certainly raises some interesting questions about the real extent of the strength of New Zealand rugby in relation to the genuine quality and depth of teams from the rest of the rugby world, and right here, and right now.
In particular, the All Blacks’ long standing Southern Hemisphere rivals the Wallabies and the Springboks, but they are certainly not alone.
If nothing else, it is food for thought, and especially in light of some of the post-match comments following the Wallaby/Springboks match from critics like former Boks coach Nick Mallet from South Africa and others, including former players, who have the temerity to be brutally honest.
So before I address Justin Marshall’s comments, let’s take a look at what Mallet and others in the SA media have said.
Nick Mallet had this to say in his post-match comments on South African television.
“I’m just concerned about the fact that I think it’s a poor Australian side. They’ve been shown up by New Zealand and by England and at home. They’re lacking confidence and it was an opportunity we had today…to get a win away from home… The problem is these two teams and Argentina are around about the same standard.”
It’s hard to argue with this when you look at home and away results so far over the Rugby Championship and the points difference in each of the Springbok, Argentina and Australia’s victories.
Each respective win was also on home soil.
The flip-side is Australia losing 3-0 to England at home, and the Boks winning in a close contest 2-1 at home to Ireland.
Is the Northern Hemisphere catching up?
Or has poor selection and coaching, that includes soft defence, uninspiring attack, substandard skill sets, and rudderless leadership by the Springboks and Wallabies aided the closing the gap?
One suspects a bit of both, and just like Argentina and the ‘Boks, Australia has yet to win away this season, and not one of the wins has completely set one side apart from the other three.
When Australia faced the All Blacks, they were thrashed at home then were comprehensively beaten away.
Nick Mallet’s most damning comments on both his home team and the Wallabies come next.
In typical Mallet style he did not mince words.
“…Compared with what they (SA) will face next week against New Zealand, it’s like night and day. The New Zealanders do not miss opportunities like both these teams today missed. They (NZ) have players who are far classier, they’re far better decision makers, and better leaders….”
In the same post-match analysis, the former Springboks coach has been much quoted in South Africa and global newspapers with his next indictment on the state of the Australian and South African national sides – though he did save one favourable comment for the Wallabies.
“I thought both teams tried hard. It was a good little battle between two B-Division sides. They’re not playing for the Championship of the World at the moment. They’re trying to fight their way out of a corner. Unfortunately, South Africa came out second best today. Australia created more opportunities…”
On the same program Jean de Villiers was only a little kinder to the Boks.
“…Unfortunately, the second half we never looked like we were going to score a try…we started off quite poorly [in the second half] and I think also the yellow card had an impact on the end result … you have to have the ability to play very competitive rugby for eighty minutes and certainly if we don’t do that next week we are going to be in for a very big surprise”
In SA Rugby Magazine, rugby writer Mark Keohane was even more scathing than Nick Mallet, targeting the coaching staff as well.
Keohone claims “This is a poor Springbok side… The Boks are not well coached. They are not a well-selected unit and they have not been well led in 2016…”
The comment about poor selection may ring a chord here in Australia with many, and quite rightly in my opinion, criticising coach Michael Cheika for some of his selections and the musical (always changing his tune) nature of them. It would seem the Boks have similar issues.
Cheika as we know, dropped Adam Coleman from the initial squad only to reinstate him after one lineout disaster after another and mixed results in other areas of the game from his other six – yes six, including Coleman and Douglas in the last All Black game – different locking combinations up until last weekend.
The thing Keohone does not do, as many have, is to blame the Springbok demise on the ever changing and more demanding quota system. At least not entirely.
He argues, that when it comes to selection, the Boks coach Allister Cortzee has done little different from previous South African coaches since the inception of the quota system.
“…Coetzee has picked no more and no less black squad players than his predecessors. The Boks aren’t losing because a coach is being forced to pick inferior players based on color. “
He does however concur with many, not only in the South Africa media, but in the global media as well, that picking a head coach and assistants who are too inexperienced, and not qualified enough to coach at Test level is hurting the Boks – and badly.
This is an argument that is very difficult to disagree with and in my opinion the single biggest problem right now in the South Africa quota system which should not include the coaching position. International rugby is no place, and has zero tolerance, for coaching mediocrity at the highest level – or at least it should.
If you want black, coloured, or indeed, white players, to get the most out of their talent, then at least give them experienced high class coaches and forget about the colour of their skin.
Everyone benefits form this kind of forward thinking. It may even be one of several catalysts sending more and more players overseas, not just the big bucks alone of European clubs.
Kohone is very clear on point.
“The Boks are losing because the national coach and his assistants are out of their depth internationally”.
Still, despite the ignominious loss to Japan in the group stage, this is a team that ran the All Blacks close in the World Cup semi-final.
Since then, and under the new coaching regime, they have lost to Ireland at home and could have lost the series if Ireland had not been hit with so many injuries.
What’s more, the Boks couldn’t even put them away when Ireland were down to 13 men.
They lost to Argentina away (who are on the rise it must be said) and had what some, even in the South African in the media, considered to be a lucky escape at home to the same team.
Much to my surprise, Phill Kearns in his post-match comments, said that he thinks Argentina are the second best side in competition with the Wallabies third, and the hapless Boks fourth.
The Pumas have certainly been the second most impressive Southern Hemisphere side this season and especially when you take their ranking at the start into consideration (eighth, now seventh) which makes this weekend’s game that much juicier.
The Argentinian game will no doubt tell us more about where everyone really sits. As it is an away game for the much travelled Pumas, Australia needs to win, and win at least reasonably well.
If the Pumas win away, then more questions will no doubt come about the quality of both the Boks and the Wallabies.
This will probably happen anyway, if the All Blacks rack up 40 or 50 points against Cortzee’s South Africa this weekend.
So then, with all this in mind, is Justin Marshall on the money?
Could New Zealand field a B-Team All Blacks and still “probably beat the rest” as Marshall argues?
And is England in Mallet’s ‘A-Division’ with All Blacks?
Well let’s go with Justin Marshall and include England.
For the purposes of this exercise we will pick a 23-man squad.
For this side, those outside the All Blacks immediate run-on-side against Argentina will be included in the mix which means the bench and those in the wider squad.
It is assumed all players are fit. So for example, Neholo becomes an available player for the second team.
Since we have pinched the All Black bench for selection, a new bench bench must be picked as well and then Justin Marshall’s second 23.
No overseas based players are available for either side.
The run on side to play Argentina was:
Ben Smith; Israel Dagg, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (c), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody
Reserves: 8 to be named in a 5/3 split for the All Black bench
Justin Marshall’s New Zealand Second team of 23 – the bench split is optional.
These players in the current squad are available for the second team:
Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Luke Romano, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Anton Lienert-Brown Zealand, Sopoaga, Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon, Ofa Tu’ungafasi , Patrick Tuipulotu, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Seta Timanivalu.
As are all injured players assumed fit like
Sonny Bill Williams – Waisake Naholo – Milner Scudder – Charlie Ngatai – George Moala – Rene Ranger – Robbie Fruan – Nepo Laulala.
Possible other players to consider but there are others of course.
Brad Shields, Steven Luatua, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, James Parsens, Jordan Tuafua, Kara Pryer, Jimmy Tupou, Dominic Bird, Hika Elliot, Nathan Harris, Liam Messam, James Broadhurst, Michael Fatialofa, Reg Goodes, Blade Thompson, Jeff Toomaga-Allan.
Rieko Ioane, Tevita Li, Ihia West, Ritchie Mo’unga, James Lowe, Johnny McNichol, Sam McNichol, Augustine Pulu (halfback), Tony Pulu (wing), Brad Weber, Cory Jane, Matt Proctor, Matt Faddes,
As I say this is just who I could I could immediately think of. Actually looking at the possible side I think Justin Marshall might have a point.
So who would you have in Justin Marshall’s second All Black side? And is he right? A good head coach might help – perhaps Justin Marshall himself.