The inquiry into New Zealand’s only loss of this year’s Rugby Championship, against the Springboks on the Gold Coast, will focus on the strange case of the vanishing Kiwi locks.
The jerseys were found, still warm and even sweaty, but with nothing to indicate where the players inside had gone.
Akira Ioane, who has improved his game immensely over the last two years, was also pretty much a passenger (again), and David Havili lacked presence, being a factor of bulk, not effort.
The much-reviled Ardie Savea was almost the only New Zealand forward – apart from Ethan Blackadder when he came on – to really have much impact. Luke Jacobson did some solid things, but less than I had expected given my high opinion of him.
I was shocked as I watched the game at how little presence Brodie Retallick had. From very early on in the Game 1 noticed how heavy Guzzler’s legs seemed to be, and he was blowing hard as well. I wonder if he was fully fit – had he suffered the stomach bug that Jacobson had?
Scott Barrett was clearly playing injured from the early incident where he put on a good hit but came up with a neck or shoulder problem. Patrick Tuipulotu was invisible. He is a class player and Test capable, but if you think that being an All Black should mean you are at least in the top two or three in the world in your position, then he is marginal. I can’t recall a good lock carry from New Zealand last night, and the sight of Guzzler leaning on rucks was just weird.
Beauden Barrett continues to shovel the ball (every genius has weak points), but the issue was the forwards weren’t going forward very much and there was a distinct lack of direct play. Perhaps this was understandable given the vacuum in the locks and at No. 6, but surely there are times when you have to take the game up the guts to settle things a bit.
I also felt there was a leadership vacuum. This wasn’t just about the captain; this was about established stars putting up their hand and saying, in effect, “Give it to me and I will take it up and then Guzzler will take the next one” and so on.
This was a bit reminiscent of the England loss in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, in which the locks lacked presence – though they were better in that game – and I felt stunned by the lack of leadership. It was also reminiscent of the loss in New Zealand to South Africa in 2018, although that game included some brain farts from the Barrett backs that didn’t occur in this game. Indeed Jordie Barrett had another impressive game under great pressure and was one of the few All Blacks who enhanced their credentials.
I thought the margin flattered New Zealand, whereas in the previous game I felt it flattered South Africa.
The issue of tackler release pointed out by Gregor Paul in the New Zealand Herald – yes, there are other writers there apart from Chris Rattue – has been an issue since the combined Super Rugby competition and the southern hemisphere internationals. Both sides flouted the law and the referee basically allowed it. This tends to then play into the hands of the side able to dominate the collision and/or the immediate entry to the ruck. Last night that was South Africa.
Unlike the England 2019 Rugby World Cup game, in which I thought New Zealand played fairly well (leadership aside) but were outgunned on the night, last night I thought New Zealand were both outgunned and also poor. The reoccurring leadership issue in really tight games and the ongoing question mark over No. 6 and depth at lock remains. I would also still like to see a bigger body at No. 12 for these sorts of games, but if the forwards go AWOL as much as last night and the leadership vacuum remains, they could pick the biggest, fastest beast in the world and it would still make no difference.
I am not sure that the defensive structure being used gets the best out of the available loose forwards for New Zealand. The personnel are available: Sam Cane when fit, Jacobson and Dalton Papalii or Blackadder. But with the defensive structure being used, even they may be outmatched against sides like South Africa, England or even Australia at their best.
It doesn’t have to be that way. New Zealand got themselves into a position where, in the latter part of Steve Hansen’s very successful reign, they basically conceded they lacked the physical grunt to take on sides like England and South Africa in a grind and had to find structures and players who could move the ball away quickly from the hard defensive points.
We saw this in the non-selection of Joe Moody for some key games in 2019, said to be because there were better ball players at loosehead. But a loosehead has a primary duty before their ball playing or field coverage becomes the issue, and the same applies to other forwards.
The only consolation is that the weekend’s loss was a game of little consequence except that no Test side should like to lose a game and no New Zealand side ever does. But that questions from 2017 remain unanswered today should be a cause for some genuine reflection. Where do New Zealand go when Whitlelock and Retallick really start to fade and then retire?
I have not really spoken of South Africa. They deserved to win off the back of a very committed performance. I have felt uncomfortable with the tone of a lot of criticism, even if I have shared some of the concerns. Whether viewers like it or not, rugby has many ways of being played, but it remains as true now as it was when the game developed that if you can dominate collisions, scrum hard and develop pressure at the ineout, and contest the breakdown, you will get the opportunity to try for points.
There are three ways to do this and two of them involve kicking the ball between the uprights. The really good sides can do this and also place the ball over the line to give themselves a try for a goal. Stupid sides neglect the basics and think that the game is about running from anywhere. That is not rugby. It isn’t even rugby league.
However, before South African supporters get too excited, they might do well to temper their justified joy with the thought that as genuine world champions, they have suffered four defeats (admittedly three were away) this season so far. They will lose more if they don’t look to build on last night.
For balance, I will add that despite Australia having much to be happy about – and some of the tries off set piece in recent games have been pure joy to watch – they were well beaten three Tests in a row by New Zealand. They are developing depth by picking players of known capacity in the twilights of their careers, and it remains to be seen if they are willing to use their forwards – whom I think are at least potentially quite abrasive – as they need to against New Zealand or a side like England.
What I think doesn’t need tempering is the pleasure of watching some of the high-quality rugby of varying styles we have been treated to over the last few months thanks to some sides being willing to make enormous sacrifices to play a lot of games away from home.
Argentina have been treated like Cinderella (again), but my observation is that they are not far off being potential semi-finalists at the next World Cup; they will certainly be familiar with playing away from home.
My thanks to all the players, referees, support staff and coaches who have given me so much entertainment and even reasons to tear my hair, gnash my teeth and rend my garments at time; there is no game like this for combining physicality, aggression, technical skills and intelligence, and joy and frustration.