Saturday’s long awaited centenary Test between rugby’s two world heavyweights may have been full of imperfections, but such is the joy of rugby. It was also a match full of gripping tension, borne of character and a classic contrast of styles.
In the end, most of the predictions were right. The Boks would bounce back from their surprisingly impotent second loss against the Wallabies, by doubling down on their high-bombing game and lifting their defensive intensity. But they would come up empty.
That’s not a sentence which does justice to the Springbok’s intensity. Nor the wafer-thin margin by which they fell short.
A lively crowd had barely settled into enjoying the North Queensland sun when the All Blacks scored from what was essentially the kick-off; twice playing on from quick line-outs, before Codie Taylor relished some fractured play, evading grasping arms, and bolting into space, to send Will Jordan racing to the line.
Taylor’s pace was eye-catching, his draw and pass to Jordan executed with the skill of a world-class centre.
The Springboks’ reply was almost instantaneous, when George Bridge – before this match, considered a safe bet under the high ball – fumbled a Faf de Klerk bomb into the path of S’Busiso Nkosi.
It’s easy to be a wise-guy after the event, but Handre Pollard’s missed conversion was to later prove crucial.
With anticipation amplified after five frantic minutes, nobody watching could have believed that would be the end of the try scoring. Gradually, the Springboks managed to wind the pace of the match back to the level they wanted, and the All Blacks became frustrated; forced to be reactive, unable to mount concerted attacks with ball in hand.
It’s instructive to look at why. One reason was the almost rabid defensive intensity that the Springboks applied. Lineouts were never allowed to settle, with green shirted bodies aggressively scything through gaps to occupy the New Zealand’s working space.
In order to secure ball, the All Blacks were forced to throw to Ethan Blackadder at the front. This meant they were invariably harried towards the touchline, or the backs were delivered chuck steak instead of prime rib, off the top.
The All Blacks were also their own enemy. Whereas a week earlier the Wallabies probed assertively and directly into holes on the edges of the Springbok’s ruck, only shifting it wide off quick, front-foot ruck ball, the All Blacks repeatedly played themselves into the wrong channels, into pressure contact situations.
As a result, inaccuracy became the order of the day, clean outs were inconsistent, handling errors went through the roof and penalties were conceded. Players who have enjoyed stellar seasons suddenly found themselves at sea, trying to adapt.
David Havili by no means played poorly, but being asked to play Samu Kerevi’s game while not being Samu Kerevi, didn’t quite work out. Bridge’s unfortunate afternoon – four catches spilled – we have already tagged. And one of Akira Ioane’s old frailties came back to haunt him; found out for being too upright in contact, in both defence and attack.
This meant that TJ Perenara never got the platform he wanted, although the irony was that when he did get clean front-foot ball, off a dominant maul in the 63rd minute, he threw a horrible pass to Havili, which once again turned possession over.
There are two ways to beat the rushed, umbrella defence; punch inside it as Australia did, or stand deeper and play around it. Anything in between is courting disaster, thus it must have been infuriating for the New Zealand brains trust when, nearing the end of the first half, on the one occasion the All Blacks opened up space with fast men to burn in the outside channel, Brodie Retallick instead turned into contact.
But before All Blacks fans become too despondent, let’s not forget that, facing a seriously committed, physical challenge, despite being slightly off-tune, they not only stayed in the fight, they won. Fairly and squarely too, there being no doubt about Quinn Tupaea’s late turnover and Jordie Barrett’s emphatic thump from 43 metres on the angle.
By contrast to his teammates, Barrett looked assured and confident under the aerial assault, making nine clean catches, but it was Ethan Blackadder who stole the show, in what was a terrific all-round performance.
Far be it for anyone put the kiss of death on a young man in his first season of Test rugby, but there were echoes of Richie McCaw in his workmanlike defence, breakdown competitiveness, and in the way he tidied up some awkward situations and got the ship steered forward again. It was also his tackle on Willie le Roux that allowed Tupaea to win the final penalty.
After a heart-stopping final ten minutes, everyone could see what the win meant to the All Blacks, just as it would have meant for their opponent. Here was a stark illustration of satisfaction, not from how the win was achieved, but from recognising the significance of this match above others, and getting the job done against a fine opponent.
For their part, South Africa benefitted from better selection, Kwagga Smith prominent as the All Blacks found themselves hounded into blind alleys, often without sufficient numbers in support. The skipper lifted as well, energetic in defence and with the ball, and the return of Lood de Jager was a significant upgrade on last week.
They found favour from referee Luke Pearce when it came to the scrum, and their lineout was a constant threat, the All Blacks afforded no cheap possession.
But for all of South Africa’s bravery and resolve, a couple of harsh truths cannot be avoided. The World Cup champions have now lost three matches on the bounce. And when the gloss of this occasion is stripped away, the crude, single-minded relentlessness of their approach with the ball, invites harsh assessment from all corners.
This iteration of the Springboks is not the first rugby side to employ a game plan built around kicking. But there is kicking – long ones, high ones, cross-field ones, chips, sneaky little grubbers, all of them part of a varied approach – and there is the sheer repetition employed by this side.
The numbers do not lie. From halfback, the Boks put up a total of twenty up and unders; five of those from inside the attacking half. Throw in high bombs from Le Roux and Pollard as well, and it was impossible not to feel barraged, even from the comfort of the sofa at home.
The extent to which commentators all around the world have fallen over themselves in a rush to condemn the Springboks – Sir Clive Woodward aghast at the “poverty and boredom” on display – has now become a situation akin to what might be described, in the modern vernacular, as ‘nation shaming’.
It is understandable, nevertheless it is not the South African way to feel embarrassed or shamed. After all, they have already been pariahs of the world over matters far more serious and important than Faf’s left boot. Whatever one feels about the style and method, the Springbok’s self-belief and ability to invest only in their own game, is impressive.
I am reminded of an old science teacher from school, a migrant from the old blighty, who proudly paraded the school grounds in sandals and long socks, usually a shade of fawn. No amount of ridicule was ever sending him to the shops to buy a pair of jandals and to get some colour into his legs.
There is too, the argument that it is the very contrast, the clash of styles, which makes this particular contest so compelling. One of the reasons the recent South Africa versus Lions series was so disappointing and indigestible for many watchers, was that both sides were so intent on playing the same way.
Here, from the outset, New Zealand and South Africa laid their cards on the table for each other to see. Not a hint of subtlety or bluff, just a belief from each that, despite the vastly different hands, theirs was the better, and that they would prove it in the playing.
So, as described in last Thursday’s preview article, this match was indeed the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. And that is one of the things that makes rugby great. There are multiple paths to victory, and when those paths cross, the efforts to impose one style or belief over another, are often what provide the most heart-thumping and compelling battles.
It is important that this doesn’t descend into a binary argument. It is entirely possible to appreciate, and even encourage, such clashes of styles, while at the same time, being constructively critical of either. If resorting to high bombs in the attacking 22 is your thing, then by all means go for your life. As long as you don’t expect others to embrace you for it. And as long as the critics respect the right to play that way.
Of more concern are cynical attempts to distort the game. Thankfully, some of the tactics employed in the Lions series – particularly on-field coaching – have not been evident in this competition. But there is a ‘but’.
For such hard, fearsome men, these Springboks get injured a lot; six times requiring a stoppage in this match, compared to zero for the All Blacks. They are not proficient tiers of their shoelaces. Referee Pearce will today be hoarse from his constant calling for the Springboks to step forward and form the lineout, urging them – but not using sanctions – to keep the game moving along.
There is a fine line being walked here, but regardless where each of us stands on the matter, the best news is that we get to do it all again, next weekend.
The late match between the Wallabies and Pumas was never going to match the opener for drama and tension but, despite the game becoming scrappy for long periods, the 27-8 win by the Wallabies represents another solid step forward for Dave Rennie’s side.
The Wallabies took the Pumas out of the game early, with hard running from Reece Hodge and Samu Kerevi – after an intelligent nudge through by Quade Cooper – delivering an important 14-0 lead.
As they always do, the Pumas worked hard to stay in the match, although Emiliano Boffeli’s uncanny ability to hook the ball late, past the left hand upright, did them no favours.
This was always the Wallabies’ match to lose though, and despite issues with a greasy ball, and some ill-discipline creeping back into their game, the result was never in doubt. Andrew Kellaway capped another strong performance, sneaking through after a period of sustained pressure, albeit off a pop-pass from James O’Connor that on another day, might have received closer scrutiny.
Rennie wasn’t overly thrilled afterwards, albeit acknowledging that it’s better to be fronting up at training knowing you haven’t played to your full capability, having won by 19 points, as opposed to enduring last year’s two draws.
The work-ons are obvious. The Wallabies scrum looked like it could have been anything early, but a combination of Argentine graft and the foot coming off the pedal, meant that full advantage wasn’t taken.
Some players pushed things a little too hard, including Tate McDermott, who overplayed his hand after coming on. His running game is a weapon, but it loses potency if the defence knows it’s coming every time.
The Pumas remind me of European Ryder Cup stalwart Ian Poulter, this weekend struggling to make an impression on the shores of Lake Michigan. You can see that there’s an outrageously talented golfer in there, but the magic from last time has gone missing.
Next weekend’s final round will almost certainly be just as competitive as this. But it feels like the two sides with the most scope to improve are the All Blacks and the Wallabies.