Ahead of the World Car Rally Cup in Japan, competitors took their wheels in for a final tune-up over the weekend. Results were mixed.
First into the garage was South African driver, Rassie Erasmus, who will feel delighted with his 41-7 scorecard. His car is a Hummer and, right now, it’s humming.
Erasmus’ Springboks weren’t forced to reveal any of their modifications, and simply played it by the numbers is attack, while looking very organised and efficient in defence.
As impressive as things stand today, triple try-scorer Makazole Mapimpi showed that there is room yet to pimp the ride even further over the next two months.
Question marks about the availability of an important member of Erasmus’ crew, Eben Etzebeth, being involved in a road rage incident back in South Africa, have seemingly been put to bed, and the green machine will rightly enter the event as one of the strong favourites to win.
Kiwi Steve Hansen’s ride is a Black Rolls Royce, the same vehicle that won back-to-back World Cups in 2011 and 2015. Despite numerous calls to trade it in for a newer model, Hansen has remained faithful to his proven machine, electing only for a minor parts replacement in the front row of the engine, and adding fancy new spoilers on the wings.
For an old car, the black unit breezed through its final inspection with a deal of zip and panache, although it is fair to say that the Tongan assessor could have posed a tougher test on the day.
In fact, so easily was the black Roller cruising, Hansen took it upon himself to take the air out of one of his own tyres: Ryan Crotty leaving the field in 66th minute without being replaced, just so that he could work the engine a bit harder.
It was a significant day for Crotty, who fully deserved his early mark. He showed no ill effects from being off the scene for nine months, some silky touches and his trademark decision-making stamping an impressive return.
While some of Hansen’s counterparts prefer to keep their cards close to their chest, Hansen is leading from the front, telegraphing how his team will play in Japan, and challenging his opponents to match or better him.
Like car racing, rugby is all about who handles their machine best at the highest speed, and in the right conditions, all teams will have trouble staying with the All Blacks, if they are able to keep the pace of the game high.
But everybody knows that sometimes surface conditions can be treacherous, or the safety marshalls are keen to slow the cars down and red flag over zealous drivers, and it remains to be seen if Hansen’s Roller has enough horsepower to muscle its way through the hilliest and muddiest sections, when in a match race situation against, say, the power of Eddie Jones’ Sweet Chariot.
The only blip on Hansen’s tune-up card came right at the end – a try for Tonga good reward for them hanging tough despite the class chasm, but also a good outcome for Hansen and his crew to be heading to Japan thinking more about the final ten minutes rather than the first 70.
Super Mario Ledesma chose an interesting location for the final tune-up of his blue Argentine Mercedes Benz GLA – a small suburban garage in Coogee, one of those places where, to get a better price, you pay with cash and a wink, and after the job is done, everyone in the neighbourhood crowds around to admire the handiwork.
There were concerns early when unexpected music blared out of the car’s sound system. Not content with saving the planet or infecting everyone’s iPhone with a ho-hum album, it seemed that Bono had taken it upon himself to claim the Argentine national anthem as well.
But normal order was restored soon enough, and the tune-up proceeded without a hitch for the visitors. It’s unlikely that Ledesma discovered anything about his car that he didn’t already know, except perhaps that his scrum goes better against a club Datsun 180B than it does against a Hummer or Roller.
What was clearly apparent is the vast gulf that exists between professional players and amateur players. On every measure – size, physique, conditioning and skills – the disparity should serve as a stern warning for any Australian rugby supporter who still believes that Australia can maintain a credible international rugby presence using the Shute Shield as its base.
In 1984 certainly, but in 2019? Forget it.
Despite Randwick being unable to christen their sparkling new scoreboard, there were two significant events to delight the home crowd. Firstly 45-year-old Andrew Walker, who debuted for the club in 1991 (think about that for a second), one minute strolling down to Coogee beach for a game of touch with his mates, the next taking the field as a replacement against a Test side.
The other bright note was provided by fledgling Waratahs fly-half Will Harrison. He will probably carry a weight of expectation over the next few years far heavier than what is good for him or Australian rugby, but there is no denying that he has the measured quickness and skill set to his game that really good players have.
The problem for Michael Cheika and his tune-up was that he left his Lexus at home and decided to tune up his old FJ Holden instead – unlike his competitors, using up some of his oil and grease on parts that won’t even be making the trip north.
Regular wheelman Michael Hooper sat this one out, because it was important to see if David Pocock, after what seems like an eternity up on blocks, could still drive. Without setting the world on fire, the answer was yes – an important box ticked for the weeks ahead.
It was a similar story for hooker Jordan Uelese, another who has had very little rugby this year, but who contributed positively, carrying often and with enthusiasm, and defending with starch.
Cheika is another who has been transparent about his preferred style – continuity at high pace – but once again here was his engine, just when it looked like it was starting to purr, coughing and spluttering at inopportune moments.
His second unit scrum ran into difficulty, horribly conceding a try, and the increasing number of handling and kicking errors in the second half suggests that yet another wheel alignment is in store before the World Cup begins.
Concerningly, tall timber Adam Coleman jammed his thumb in the car door, an injury he has suffered previously, although encouragingly for Wallabies’ fans, he did appear to have movement in it after the match.
Not so lucky was Samoan and Queensland Reds halfback Scott Malolua, who got his arm into an awful position in trying to prevent a try right on half time. A talented player who promises big things for the Reds next year, Malolua’s brave action looks likely to have cost him a World Cup experience.
Perhaps the Wallabies who played will be better for the run, but the jury will remain out on whether Cheika might have been better placed to put more time into enhancing some of his developing, first-choice combinations.
Certainly, letting this opportunity slide seems like an expensive price to pay to reinforce things that he already knew – for example, that kicking at 33 per cent, Bernard Foley is not the man to entrust with winning a World Cup from the tee.
Thirty-three per cent was also the mark for Samoa’s malfunctioning line out, the visitors winning only three of their nine throws. One key difference between tier-one and tier-two sides is consistency at set-piece, a reflection of how little time the coaches of the smaller nations get to tinker with their cars, relative to the richer nations.
Note how Samoa had done well to work themselves into the game, kicking a penalty for 10-3, but then promptly muffed the kick-off to allow Adam Ashley-Cooper to score – just as Tonga had allowed George Bridge a clear run onto the second-half kick-off in Hamilton for a gift try.
If these sides are to cause any headaches for the higher-ranked nations in their respective pools, they simply can’t afford to drop their concentration like this.
With all of the tune-ups completed, World Rugby scrutineers met to rank all of the cars for the final time before the event kicks off in Tokyo on Friday week.
Joe Schmidt’s Paddy Wagon has been awarded top ranking which, depending on how one views these things, is either just reward for consistent performance, or evidence that World Rugby’s clipboard men have been caught out acclimatising to the Japanese sake a little too over-enthusiastically.
Whichever, if the Paddy Wagon had been quietly sneaking into the event under the radar, it is no longer.
Recent top fancy, Warren Gatland’s Red Dragon Mobile has fallen further out of favour, now number five with a south-facing bullet, while anyone wondering how last weeks’ number one, New Zealand, could win by 85 points yet slide down to number two might be better off taking up astrophysics.
Or else washing the car, just for the fun of it.
Finally this week, a short mark of respect for Chester Williams, who, at the tender age of 49, suffered a heart attack and passed away on Friday.
The 1995 World Cup was iconic for the reason of it marking South Africa’s re-admittance into the international rugby fold, and the symbolism around new president Nelson Mandela and captain Francois Pienaar, pre and post-Apartheid, black and white, embracing as victors in every respect, on the field and off.
My recollection of that tournament is dominated by two things, firstly Jonah Lomu’s individual performance against England in the semi-final, his run over the top of fullback Mike Catt doing as much as any single act by any player to place rugby onto the world stage.
But even more symbolic was the inclusion of Williams as the only black player in the South African squad – a massive honour in itself, but one that also placed enormous personal pressure on him, given that previous selections of black players for South Africa had widely been considered tokenistic.
Williams not only proved that his selection was worthy, he went on to become one of the star players of the tournament, scoring four tries in the quarter-final against Western Samoa, and of course playing an important role in the win in the final against New Zealand.
The make-up of the South African squad of today owes itself in great part to Williams’ role as an ambassador and inspiration for young black players across South Africa to take up rugby as their sport.
Widely admired as a rugby coach and as a gentleman, Williams is a tragic loss.