The great Jedi Master, Yoda, may well have been a rugby coach. He’d certainly have experience on his side, being well into his tenth century at the time of his passing.
With the Wallabies’ impressive showing in the first Bledisloe Cup Test, there were many signs of a new playing group trying to get to new levels. “You must unlearn what you have learned… Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try,” the Master told Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Definite rugby themes.
And his message for the All Blacks, ahead of Game 2? Maybe his “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose” from Revenge of the Sith. Eighteen years would be long enough to build such a fear.
The first Test match of the season was amazing, with anticipation for the next episode of the saga in Auckland this Sunday already high. The panel seems keen, too.
What a difference a week makes. After a surprisingly dramatic Bledisloe Cup opener, which team has the most improvement in them in Game 2 in Auckland this weekend?
In short, the Wallabies surprised me in the best way. They will be able to do better if they continue with the attitude demonstrated this last Sunday.
The team that must get better are the All Blacks, who did not show the gameplay they had only a few years ago and will have to make a greater effort to improve.
The obvious answer is the All Blacks, simply because they were below their best in Game 1 – not to mention the near-mythical boost to their powers playing at Eden Park provides.
However, the improvement we saw in the Wallabies after just three weeks in camp with Dave Rennie was quite remarkable. Throw in another seven days with the new coach after a game to get a proper sense of where the squad’s at, and another leap from the men in gold wouldn’t be entirely unexpected. That Rennie said his side were still miles from where they need to be also bodes well for further improvement in Bledisloe 2.
Both teams will want and expect improvement this week, but as any kid who’s woken up on Christmas morning to a pair of new school shoes instead of a bike knows, what one wants and what one gets are often two entirely different things.
All Blacks redemption performances are always grounded in assertiveness and physicality from the pack. But with Sam Whitelock in doubt and Brodie Retallick munching on minke, there have to be questions about where that dominance will come from. Nonetheless, Eden Park is a factor, more so if it is dry, and a determination to play the game on their terms suggests New Zealand have substantial improvement in them.
The Wallabies know all about false dawns, but this side has fewer moving parts than last year’s’ version, and with it, a sense that their bundle won’t be so easily dropped when the pressure ramps up. There’s no reason at all why they won’t continue to improve, but at this early stage, their scope is less.
I actually reckon the Wallabies have the most improvement in them, simply because there was a certain sameness about the way the All Blacks played on the weekend. Yes, they can sharpen up in a few areas, but there’s no coincidence Ian Foster has carried on with the Steve Hansen approach. He helped develop it.
But the Wallabies and Dave Rennie still have a whole lot of growing to do together, and Wellington was about as fantastic a starting point as they come. There was a bit of rust, as you’d expect in the first Test of the season, but there was also a decent amount of intent around the way they want to play.
If you just think about their kicking in general play, there are huge improvements to be made, yet the kicking game really wasn’t lacking. They weren’t terrible at the breakdown, but even just by working on the accuracy of their attacking cleanout – something Rennie is big on – will make a huge difference to their ability to make ground.
Both teams will have identified the improvements they need to work on this week, and both will be better. But the Wallabies have more room to become ‘more better’, if you will.
I am really unsure how to answer this question as I can see immense improvement possible for both sides.
As a first-up performance, you have to imagine the Wallabies have plenty of upside as they get used to new coaching structures, and of course there are a number of experienced All Blacks who you know can perform better.
But frankly, my confidence in the current New Zealand coaching set up, tactics and selections leave me quite cold so on that basis, I actually see more improvement within the Wallabies, perhaps not this specific week but certainly in the longer term.
The All Blacks have more room for improvement in the score.
They can apply downward pressure to the ball with both careful hands and add seven points. Their players can play in the right positions. Their best player returns. They can create more chances. Their coach is embarrassed.
The Wallabies won’t ever tackle harder.
Although Super Rugby Unlocked has kicked off in South Africa, the status of Argentina’s proposed practice games before the Rugby Championship remain unknown. Given the intensity of the All Blacks-Wallabies Test on Sunday afternoon, are Los Pumas and the Springboks already consigned to competing for third?
It is obvious that Los Pumas are here to decorate the tournament, if we take into account that the 13 players who have had the most rugby this year, that is those who could find teams in Europe, have not arrived in Australia yet.
Those who are already there are a few starters and a lot of Los Pumas rookies. It is very difficult to get a COVID-free team to play a friendly and it would not do much at this point.
The participation of South Africa at the time of writing is in doubt and it is also in doubt whether Argentinian players from Europe could be available for the first match.
I’m happy to write the Pumas off as third-placed contenders at absolute, absolute best – well, not happy, but content that such a prediction won’t come back to bite me in the arse. As for the Springboks, I was going to say something like “it’s hard to know until we see their squad and its mix of more match-fit, European-based players and less-ready locals”, but the more pressing issue, of course, is whether they turn up at all.
Let’s assume, rather optimistically, that they will. Had the draw (which is now up in their air regardless of their participation) pitted Argentina and South Africa against each other in consecutive weeks to start the competition, it would have given both teams a better build-up to their first matches against the Wallabies and All Blacks.
Instead, they’ll each face a side coming off four Bledisloe matches in five weeks with just a solitary Test against similarly underdone opposition under their belts. They’ll be competitive-ish by the end of the tournament, particularly the Boks, but it’s hard to see anything but a slow start which makes the Rugby Championship a two-horse race.
Argentina has never beaten New Zealand. On this preparation – if that is the right word for it – they are no show of changing that. Against Australia too.
But if the exercise is treated as an investment for the future, uncovering a future star or two, it will be worth their while.
While the Boks have their world champion reputation to protect, if that can be set aside, and their participation viewed through the same lens as the Pumas, (and of course through the until), then it doesn’t really matter if they are playing for third or not. In one sense they are in a no-lose situation if they come. Short prep or not, they will always be a winning threat, but any losses will be marked with a ‘no shame’ asterisk.
Yep, I reckon they are. And if the talk floating around that the Springboks might just play the last three games becomes reality, then you can just lock them in for fourth now.
The closer we get to the start of the Rugby Championship, the more it becomes apparent that SANZAAR truly is the rugby equivalent of the camel created by committee when something closer to a racehorse was imagined. The fact the start of the tournament is now officially one week earlier than first announced is just one example.
How a committee masquerading as a governing body can supposedly agree on a schedule one minute, then have an individual member of said committee argue the point is ridiculous. How a different member of the same committee can agree to the schedule and sign the participation agreement, but then still need to later confirm they’ll take part is frankly ridiculous.
This year’s Rugby Championship is just the current portal view of SANZAAR. The tournament is a dog’s breakfast because the member nations have fed it to their pets each morning! Argentina will run third because of bonus points and probably a win over South Africa. South Africa will run fourth because they’ll be allowed to play as few games as they think feels right.
It is difficult to see the Pumas being competitive given the trials they have faced thus far, but it is all too easy to write off a side when they have not been visible either. And I most certainly am not prepared to put a line through the Springboks.
Of course the preparation will not be ideal, not having the desired miles on the clock as individuals or as a squad, but don’t discount the benefit of being relatively fresh. Assuming the mind is willing, I would expect the Boks to be, as they usually are, highly competitive.
No, even though the Bledisloe 1 was magnificent theatre, it wasn’t the finest of rugby quality.
The Boks would be the same underdogs as in the Rugby World Cup; the best scrum, maul, and defensive system. They’ll be a chance.