Boks, NZ take opening 2015 strides
The first steps are being taken on the road to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The All Blacks and Springboks have both introduced new talent to their ranks, France are also blooding some new players, and Australia have the Lions tour, which could be a great launch pad.
The Springboks have made a very positive start.
With Italy having put up a spirited performance against the All Blacks last November, before knocking off France and Ireland and running England close in the Six Nations I expected more from them, but they were never in the hunt, and never looked remotely up to the challenge.
Maybe they weren’t allowed to be. The way the Boks built pressure and converted that into points was classic South Africa, forcing penalties and a yellow card that allowed them to cash in and have the game in hand within the first quarter.
But what was most interesting was to see the inclination to give a bit more rein to their speedsters, and Willie le Roux, Bjorn Basson and especially Bryan Habana certainly relished the opportunity.
Now is a great time, against mid-range opposition, to try a few things. Time will tell if this shift in approach signals a more open, expansive game plan going forward. Things could get very exciting if it does, although they would be unwise to go too far from their traditional strengths.
I note HMs comments on Habana, how he felt he can be a bit ordinary in Super Rugby and then play like that. Well I’ve always felt Habana has not been given enough attacking opportunities in Super Rugby for one, and secondly I think Bryan is sending a message that he still wants to be part of Springbok rugby when he heads to France.
While the Boks struck a rather dispirited Italian team, the All Blacks found the opposite in the French.
France have a history of playing their best rugby against New Zealand. They’ve twice knocked them out of the World Cup and are the last team to have beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park, 19 years and 29 tests ago, when they scored what I still reckon is one of the best test tries of all time to win it at the death.
But they came to NZ off an ordinary Six Nations, with several players ruled out because of their involvement in the T14 club final the weekend before, and one or two others not included in the touring party for a bit of rest, such as Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc.
Having said that, a look back through the line-ups for the Six Nations showed they weren’t quite as understrength as they had been trying to tell everyone, and they were definitely out to try and catch the All Blacks off guard, as they did in the first test in Dunedin four years ago.
They were certainly amped up for the challenge of taking on the All Blacks at Eden Park, which the French seem to regard in almost spiritual terms…one of the biggest leisure clothing companies in France is called Eden Park…a company founded by members of the French team that lost the 1987 World Cup final to the All Blacks.
They started well, scoring the first try, and they gave New Zealand real problems at the breakdown, waiting for New Zealands ball carriers to get isolated before pouncing.
There were two crucial moments. Firstly, the outstanding No 8 Louis Picamoles dropped a pass with the line open, blowing a chance to level the scores midway through the second half….although there was a forward pass in the lead-up that was not detected, so Wayne Barnes was saved another roasting from the New Zealand public.
And then with 20 minutes to go, under the new sub laws in use for this series, coach Philippe St Andre changed out both his props, bringing on Vincent Debaty and South African Daniel Kotze.
Kotze made some good charges with ball in hand, but the French scrum was from there on completely overpowered, giving away three successive penalties, and all momentum was lost.
Galling, for a nation that has prided itself on its scrummaging, but an indictment on the manner in which the French clubs have allowed their propping stocks to become so utterly dominated by foreigners that there are now very few French props of international quality.
They are courting disaster elsewhere too, with a Fijian winger, and an import flyhalf or scrumhalf almost compulsory fashion accessories for the French T14 sides.
Back to the test, and in the end it was a win, not at all convincing, but a match that served a dual purpose in setting up the three test series, and sending a clear message that the All Blacks have a lot of work to do ahead of their defence of the Rugby Championship.
There is talk of a new, high-tempo game plan, but frankly the ABs already play the game at a tempo higher than most, and really need to sort a few basics out before they set about going supersonic.
There was some interesting action elsewhere.
Firstly hats-off to Saru for the innovation of having four teams in the country for a mini-tournament. The Lions tour dominates such a year and with France in New Zealand there’s not a lot else available, so this is a worthwhile exercise.
It gave Samoa a chance to take another scalp from one of the established nations, and the sight of Alesana Tuilagi monstering the Scottish defence will have a few waking up in a cold sweat.
Also in progress right now is the Pacific Nations Cup, which has produced some good rugby, but some controversy.
The Tongans got themselves into a whole lot of trouble against Canada with a succession of crude shoulder charges and high tackles which probably deserved even greater punishment than they received.
It was disappointing to see them play the race card afterwards, claiming they were the victims of bias because of their skin colour and that the Canadians had started the trouble.
Tonga are one of the under-resourced rugby nations and need these tournaments to help grow the game, but this is not the way to make friends. Canada play tough, but they play fair.
The Lions tour is starting to heat up, and they scored a hard-fought win over a Queensland side that fired up well despite the absence of their Wallaby stars.
The big sub-plot is the ongoing Quade Cooper issue, with a lot of people trying to goad Robbie Deans into picking him for his ability to do something out of the ordinary.
Deans was never going to pick him. You fall out with Robbie and that’s it. Over.
But you also have to consider the way Cooper's game fell apart under pressure during the World Cup, his petulant outbursts, and the fact that for all the extraordinary things he can do, he is just as likely to cost his team a big game as win it.
It’s a tough call but Deans has probably done the right thing. I think the Aussies are good enough to win without Cooper, although if they lose the series it will be thrown back in Deans face, and he will probably be sacked.
It’s tough to call this one, could go either way and it should be a great series. I somehow think injuries are going to play a huge part.