It was a near run thing, but we got there in the end. Defying delta, trans-Tasman spats, a captain’s photoshoot missing 25 per cent of the captains, a team tagged as the most boring in the history of rugby, pommy referees and an ill-advised sojourn to a Byron Bay day spa, the 2021 Rugby Championship has been run and won.
And it’s been won by some distance too, despite the All Blacks failing to achieve what New Zealand rugby, stepping into SANZAAR’s marketing void, belatedly coined a ‘grand slam’. Will that catch on? Maybe, although I suspect not until after two or three nations achieve it.
At least we have been spared the sham identified by New Zealand rugby writer Jamie Wall, being the incongruity around the All Blacks apparently keen to create a ‘grand slam’ tag and yet, upon being asked next season about their pursuit of that grand slam, coaches and players lowering their eyes and speaking in serious tones about how they never chase trophies like that and always focus on one match at a time.
Yesterday, we looked at the Rugby Championship team of the tournament. And as always with these things, arguments were tossed back and forth – which is exactly the purpose and indeed the fun of such exercises.
With a day’s reflection, the team of the tournament is almost certainly all of the administrators, players, coaches and match officials – from all nations – who, in the most trying of circumstances, made the whole thing happen.
Do not underestimate for a second how difficult it is to navigate the Titanic through the narrow, twisting upper reaches of the Amazon – anacondas slithering onto the railings, COVID pygmies blowing poison darts through the side of the hull, the fear of the unknown lurking around every bend.
In the end, in the irony to end all ironies, it was Peter V’landys and the NRL who got the final round of the Rugby Championship completed in front of a crowd despite the emergence of new COVID cases in Queensland late last week.
Scheduling the final round the day before the NRL grand final proved to be the world’s most rock-solid insurance policy; a rare SANZAAR masterstroke. Albeit part of the deal was that fans park their cynicism and dare not suggest that non-decisions about a COVID lockdown and the rugby league grand final were in any way related.
A small price to pay, and so let us pay a debt of thanks to the health advice that decreed a crowd of 75 per cent capacity safe – versus 76 per cent capacity unsafe – and nod our appreciation to state premiers who would never make political decisions in such a delicately balanced health environment.
And, just before anyone accuses me of taking a cheap shot at Queensland, don’t forget that I live in Victoria, a place where it is now legal to play golf as long as you don’t record a number one or number two. Crazy times indeed.
Almost as crazy as having five different leaders in the final five minutes of a Test match, with South Africa finding themselves closest to the chair when the music finally stopped on the Gold Coast.
If that implies there was an element of luck in the Springboks’ 31-29 win, that’s not the intention. No side that stamps its personality on a match like this one did should ever be considered lucky.
The buzzword of the last few weeks has been ‘DNA’, and many scribes, me included, have been guilty of framing the Springboks Rugby Championship campaign as a search for the essence of what makes South African rugby tick.
More accurately, this was less a mission in search of some intangible, nebulous DNA but more a shaking off of the shroud that was this year’s Lions series and a rediscovering of what won South Africa the 2019 World Cup.
If the Lions series was a downer for Lions fans and lovers of rugby everywhere, it also bore a high cost for South Africa. Their pathway to victory was inexplicably narrow and inflexible, and once back into the cut and thrust of southern hemisphere rugby, it proved very difficult for Jacques Nienaber and his team to reset.
Perhaps if they’d listened to the copious amount of unsolicited advice they had received, they might have got there sooner. Nevertheless, get there they eventually did. Not by turning themselves into a band of 15-man entertainers but through uncompromising physicality, intent to compete at set piece and the breakdown, and a plan to intensify pressure and take space away from the All Blacks in all parts of the field.
Beauden Barrett’s 59th-minute kick-pass was not the result of some sudden brain explosion or an indiscriminate, reckless roll of the dice but instead the manifestation of pressure. Being deprived of field position, being pummelled by aggressive tackling and surviving on scraps of possession does funny things to people.
Once again, the All Blacks didn’t help themselves, playing into midfield pressure early on, Codie Taylor’s fumble providing Lukhanyo Am the opportunity to show everyone what they’ve been missing over the last six weeks.
The All Blacks response was impressive, although 20-14 at halftime never felt comfortable, with their lineout again under pressure, the gain line battle being conceded and chaos reigning under the high ball.
Too often the All Blacks were caught short on manpower at the breakdown. Both Luke Jacobson and Akira Ioane lacked presence on the ball. Ioane resorted to old habits – jersey grabbing on defence, and on attack stopping prior to contact, halting his own momentum and making timing difficult for his support players.
The Boks again got the arm-wrestle they desired and the points to go with it. They won the big moments too. In the coaching box when Nienaber went to his bench early and also when Frans Steyn gobbled up a loose David Havili kick and punished the All Blacks with a 50:22 kick, laying the foundation for Makazole Mapimpi’s try.
And so to the crazy final five minutes, when referee Matthew Carley, who endeared himself to the crowd when he admonished a South African water carrier for involving himself in the match, really got his arms flapping.
In such a pernickety mood, someone was always going to be unluckily singled out. For the Boks, that was Steyn, unfairly ruled to have not rolled away after tackling Damian McKenzie when in fact the impact of the tackle had resulted in the ball being transferred from McKenzie to him.
Immediately the Boks were offered the lead back, although watching live, it felt like Elton Jantjies’s dropped goal, despite being successful, was the wrong option. Why not play out the penalty advantage they were under and then milk more time off the clock taking the penalty?
Also unlucky was Asafo Aumua, ruled to have been sealing off as the All Blacks attempted to run down the clock. His action was no more or less than what countless other players had done – without sanction – throughout the match.
The real crime was that the All Blacks even went down this path. Everyone knows how much referees hate to see sides passively run out time, and penalties against the side in possession in these circumstances are increasingly common. What odds instead for the ball being pumped into the corner and the Springboks taking it all of the way, from deep in their 22, on the final play of the match?
Instead the Boks were allowed to go to their lineout and set up play towards the posts, potentially for another dropped goal if a penalty didn’t come. Come it did, far more easily than they could have expected, with Ofa Tu’ungafasi clearly a step ahead of his teammates in the defensive line, making no effort to reload.
So now the two giants turn towards the north, with Nienaber both relieved and vindicated and Ian Foster looking forward to the return of Sam Whitelock and wondering what more fight he can get out of his pack.
Fascinating contests await us, what feels like a long-overdue chance to remeasure the respective merits of north and south. And of course some of those clashes will feature the Wallabies, who made it four on the bounce, disposing of Argentina 32-17 in the early match.
Once again the Wallabies did many things well, in particular getting great value out of some set lineout plays, demonstrating the value of sharp, accurate throwing, enabling the ball to be used off the back. Note how the best All Blacks move of the night, the try to Ardie Savea, also came from the only time they were able to secure fast ball off the top, at the back of the lineout.
The Wallabies defensive line was strong and connected, and as confidence increased and the fear of losing dissipated, some tasty ball playing saw the score blow out to 32-3 entering the final quarter.
Unfortunately that’s where all the fun ended, and a combination of Pumas spirit and too many changes in short succession rendered the final quarter an example of the law of diminishing returns and an exercise in frustration for home fans.
The returns of Greg Holmes and Sean McMahon were welcome blasts from the past, but sometimes things don’t always work out as well as planned from the bench when players are striving to make an impression in the limited time offered to them.
Losing Jordan Petaia after the backline replacements had been exhausted didn’t help matters. Petaia had been challenged earlier in the week by coach Dave Rennie to match the work rate of Marika Koroibete, and he made a fair fist of that in what was his best performance in some time, albeit the try-scoring plaudits going to his partner on the other wing, Andrew Kellaway.
The Wallabies now head to Japan in a very good headspace. Rennie and his coaching staff have seen off any doubts and question marks posed by the Bledisloe Cup losses, and there is the prospect of even more northern hemisphere-based manpower to bolster playing stocks even further.
Despite not being able to quite finish off the Pumas in style, now feels like a good time to bank the four wins, have a freshen up and come back again in three weeks for another crack.
The Pumas could not have been helped by the Byron Bay shenanigans in the lead-up to the match, with skipper Julian Montoya – who played a superb individual hand – lamenting their customary slow start. Most of all, however, for Argentina to move forward again, they simply have to improve their set piece.
Despite the top and bottom of the table being determined early, this has been a strong Rugby Championship, dotted with high-quality rugby moments, numerous talking points and controversy – everything any self-respecting rugby competition should contain.
If forced to nominate my favourite three moments, I’d opt for the way the All Blacks runners swept on to Beauden Barrett’s precise nudge in Perth, Quade Cooper’s zen-like return and winning goal against South Africa and the images of players from all four sides sharing the same plane on return from Townsville.
Imagine if, in the future, that plane was an Airbus A380, big enough to contain the Fijian and Japanese teams as well?