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The Wrap: Three epic Test matches all swing to the north

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21st November, 2021
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Leading into the week, there was a sense that this autumn international series hadn’t quite hit its straps. Unless you happened to be Irish, mismatches and inconsistent, muddling rugby, had fans struggling to determine exactly where their teams lay.

That was all blown out of the water by a ‘Super Saturday’ that, with due respect to Scotland, Japan, Fiji and Georgia, delivered three epic encounters. One after another: bang, bang, bang!

And if people in the southern half of the world who sat through the night, got to Sunday breakfast disappointed, frustrated or angry, most will have been fully appreciative of what was a compelling display or rugby’s perfection and imperfection.

It is apt this week to work backwards; starting with France, who were the best team on display; equal parts brutal and classical, in their 40-25 win over the All Blacks in Paris.

For 60 minutes they played with a level of intensity and physicality that seemed off the charts; and which the All Blacks were powerless to run with. More than that however, behind Fabien Galthie’s designer oxy-acetylene goggles, there is a master craftsman who has overlaid composure and discipline, to provide the complete package.

The twenty minutes after halftime when the French didn’t have things their own way, was less about any failings of theirs, but spoke more to a brave All Blacks side, off-colour all tour, but wholly determined to atone for their first-half humiliation.

Fabien Galthie

France’s head coach Fabien Galthie looks on during a training. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP via Getty Images)

But in the 62nd minute, the initiative was regained by France with a moment so audacious – so French – that it took the breath away, and with it, the match.

In a fortnight’s time, World Rugby will begin rolling out its annual awards. There is no category for ‘magic individual moment of the year’, but if there was, Romaine Ntamack would win by the length of the Champs-Elysees.

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Having somehow recovered to 27-25, and with multiple players streaming after a Jordie Barrett kick ahead, forcing Ntamack to carry the ball back over his try-line, a five-metre scrum seemed certain. The All Blacks, by then playing more directly and with real purpose, were surely odds-on to take the lead from the scrum.

It was a scrum that never came. Seconds later, after Ntamack had arched his back and launched an audacious counter-attack down the left wing, Ardie Savea was being invited by referee Wayne Barnes to take a seat for ten minutes, and Melvyn Jaminet was popping over another penalty goal.

It is difficult to think of a turning point from any match, so starkly influential. New Zealand shoulders slumped, and France immediately regained the spark that had ignited their first half effort.

David Havili’s intercepted pass – the All Blacks desperate to move ball to players in space on the left – was merely the rubber stamp on a match that Ntamack had already decided.

Incredibly, Ntamack’s reward was to be subbed out of the match – an act so typically French – but by then, with their sails billowing in the wind, it didn’t matter. France was entitled to begin celebrating early, and did so.

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Afterwards, discussion turned to the 2023 World Cup, and expectations that France might finally break their duck with a home victory. If they play like they did in this match, only a fool would bet against this happening, and anyone with a ticket to the opener in Paris – a rematch against New Zealand – is entitled to be frothing at the mouth already.

But that is two long years away. For now, all eyes will be focused on what should be a memorable Six Nations tournament, in the new year.

The All Blacks meanwhile, can look forward to introspective down-time in managed quarantine, to ponder the undeniable confirmation of their coming back to the pack. They will be philosophical about meeting yet another side who saved their absolute best for them, but, like Ireland last week, Argentina last year and England the year before that, that’s the reality of how things roll these days.

Gone are the advantages All Black sides of the last decade held over their opponents; points of difference in skill execution, handling under pressure and conditioning. Welcome to the new norm.

Like Ireland, France knows it has the ability to hold the ball for long periods, to apply pressure, and to have the match played on their terms.

By contrast, by conceding turnovers under pressure – exactly how they constructed so many of their wins – and failing to switch on to their opponent’s intensity from the first whistle, the All Blacks have found themselves chasing the game early, against sides not likely to relent in the final quarter, as a result of mental and physical fatigue.

It is only natural (and fair) that the All Blacks’ coaching staff will come under pressure as a result of the team’s performance over the last three weeks. But if the off-season is used to honestly reflect on the deficiencies, and to have hard discussions about match plans and player ins and outs, then this tour won’t be the disaster it feels it is, right now.

Jordie Barrett celebrates another New Zealand victory

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

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For the All Blacks to move forward, the vague, inexplicable moments need to go; things like inaccuracy on the pass and catch, and Jordie Barrett beginning the match by bizarrely kicking the ball straight into touch when he didn’t need to, which merely invited French hooker Peatu Mauvaka to open the scoring.

There is the promise of fresh blood around which the team can be taken forward; Samisoni Taukei’aho and Quinn Tupaea both fronted up manfully, Rieko Ioane was convincing at centre, and there were signs that there is still life left in the legs of Brodie Retallick.

There is also a sense that the new Super Rugby season will carry extra spice, and with it, opportunity for players, new and current to put their hand up for a black (or white) jersey. ‘Big unit’ front-rowers in particular, this is the time to step forward.

Whatever, come the selection of Ian Foster’s first squad in 2022, it seems inconceivable, based on performances on this tour, that the status quo will apply. The whole book may not need to be burned, but this chapter is now closed.

By way of an ‘in’ to the Wallabies’ heartbreaking 29-28 loss to Wales, it is worth mentioning the performance of referee Wayne Barnes in Paris. Calm and mostly accurate, he contributed mightily to what was an outstanding game of rugby.

Perhaps the best that can be said about Scotsman Mike Adamson, is that he contributed mightily to the outcome of the Cardiff match.

Dave Rennie’s post-match frustration was understandable, speaking up for his side, and while he opened himself up to sanction, to Rennie’s credit, he never crossed into personal attack. Nor did he seek to excuse Rob Valetini’s role in his receiving a red card in the 14th minute.

Red cards for what used to be considered accidental head clashes don’t sit well with many fans. But as Rennie rightly pointed out, the law is clear; tackling players who rush into contact at speed in an upright position, and who make contact with the head of the ball carrier with their arm, shoulder or head, are deemed culpable.

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That there was no intent on Valetini’s part to injure seemed clear. But, because of his recklessness – his refusal to bend at the waist and aim lower – a serious head injury resulted to Adam Beard. In times of heightened concussion awareness, these kinds of collisions can no longer be accepted as accidents.

Before Valetini’s dismissal, the Wallabies had started with a purpose and intent not seen on tour; clean and disciplined at the breakdown, with Nic White and James O’Connor far more direct and in-synch with each other.

And while they could easily have dropped their bundle after Nick Tompkins’ farcical 47th minute try, the Wallabies only raised the tempo higher, with superb team tries to White and Filipo Daugunu keeping them right in the hunt.

Rob Valetini of Australia is shown a red card during the Autumn Nations Series match between Wales and Australia at Principality Stadium on November 20, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Rob Valetini of Australia is shown a red card (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

The vastly improved performance of the backline was of course a function of the ‘go-forward’ provided; much of it by Taniela Tupou before the break, and Rob Leota after. Operating a man down, there was a lot to like too about the set piece platform. Finally, this looked like a team not only playing for each other, but with each other.

When Kurtley Beale wound back the clock in the 78th minute with a long-range penalty goal, then followed up with a spectacular kick-off receipt and dash, it seemed the Wallabies had done enough to secure a famous, inspirational victory.

But Beale inexplicably ruined all his good work with an ineffective, panicky kick ahead, and Wales, to their great credit, had enough energy and composure to finish the game off on the siren.

In any one-point loss there are ‘what if’ moments that jump out. O’Connor hitting the post with a conversion attempt is an obvious one, but it is impossible to skip past the try gifted to Tompkins; matters so obvious that Tompkins gave himself up after regathering the ball, until he was waved on by Adamson, who seemed to be the only person on the pitch who believed that Tompkins hadn’t knocked the ball on.

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There will no doubt be Biomechanists and Geometrists prepared to step forward to scientifically prove that the ball was propelled backwards by Tompkins. Even if they do, any such arguments are illusory.

Rugby has evolved considerably over 150 years, but one thing that has remained constant is the notion that you don’t need a compass and a slide rule to know that a player dropping or knocking the ball downwards in front of him, is deemed to have knocked the ball on.

The controversy only added to the theatre of what was a pulsating Test match, although to be fair to Adamson, he wasn’t responsible for the Wallabies again falling victim to their persistent weakness; an inability to keep fifteen, or even fourteen players on the pitch.

However, unlike the last fortnight, there was no loss of honour for the Wallabies. Numerous players took a step forward and there was a crisp, cohesive edge to much of the play that the squad and fans, can carry into next year.

Not to be outdone, Twickenham threw up another epic contest. England jumped out of the blocks with a jaunty strut, but were overpowered in the forwards in the second half, and looked odds-on to suffer the same fate as they did in Yokohama’s World Cup final.

The case to swap South Africa’s two front rows will only gain momentum after this, but what hurt the Boks most was the opportunity cost of continually trying to prove what everybody already knows; Freddie Steward can catch the high ball.

Two crucial plays decided the contest. After alternating between running back door plays and hoisting high kicks, Marcus Smith suckered Damian de Allende into misreading a flat play, which opened up a seam, and saw replacement halfback Raffi Quirke streak away for a thrilling try.

The visitors still led, but when Frans Steyn unwisely slid into contact knees first, Smith was never missing the opportunity to ice the match, 27-26.

Marcus Smith of England celebrates after being awarded a penalty on the last play during the Autumn Nations Series match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 20, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

So for now, the spoils reside with the northern hemisphere nations. But other than to state the obvious around the quality of some of the rugby played and the emerging talent in the north, I wouldn’t be jumping to any lasting conclusions just yet.

We don’t know by how much, but long stretches inside a travelling Covid bubble are a factor. Any of the ‘tier one’ sides can go from diamonds to rocks and back, in no time at all. The margins are – for now at least – fine margins.

At the end of another trying, COVID-influenced year, it’s fair to say that rugby finds itself in a strange place. There is concern over refereeing standards and TMO processes; some of it warranted, some of it overblown.

A large cohort remains upset about cards being waved for what was previously understood to be accidental or unintentional high contact. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, World Rugby’s problematic statement this week, clouding the link between the after-effects of concussion and other causes of early-onset dementia, was greeted with widespread dismay.

A curious paradox exists. If the game is broken beyond repair, or its imperfections are as insufferable as so many people insist that they are, how is it possible that we were served three contests full of endeavour and drama, full of intense physicality, studded with sparkling, skilful tries?

There are problems to be solved; some of them pressing and important. But these three Test matches show that under the cover of its imperfections, rugby retains an essence that is weirdly and beautifully perfect.

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