Crash testing almost done for Boks, ABs
Are the All Blacks and Springboks already on a collision course to decide The Rugby Championship?
If it’s too early to tell after week one, I’d say we can start firming up our opinions at the end of the coming weekend.
Both Australia and Argentina would have to make dramatic improvements to deny their opposition a 100% record after the first fortnight.
It’s not, however, beyond the realms of possibility. The Pumas are a lot harder to beat at home, while in shades of RWC 2011, the All Blacks will go into their return Bledisloe Cup encounter with their three top flyhalves out of action. So reversals might be hard to consider, but not entirely out of the question.
The All Blacks enjoyed a charmed run last year with injuries. In contrast to the Boks and Wallabies who had a bit of an epidemic, the All Blacks faced very few disruptions until right at the end of the northern tour when a few went down.
I wrote a piece about it about a year ago for supersport.com, suggesting that the relatively clean bill of health could be attributed in no small way to the All Blacks' outstanding fitness and conditioning.
But a lot of it is down to luck, and it tends to go in cycles. Right now the All Blacks are having their depth tested. Luke Romano is out of the entire championship, robbing them of an outstanding three-lock rotation.
And hard on the heels – or calf, to be exact – of Dan Carter going down for a couple of weeks, both his understudies are out of this week’s test in Wellington, with Aaron Cruden out for two to six weeks with a posterior cruciate injury and Beauden Barrett out for probably just one week with a tight calf.
It’s especially rotten luck for Cruden, who produced his most accomplished test performance in the Sydney match. He engaged the Wallaby defensive line, kicked well, and again showed his bravery on defence.
He has been through a bit in life already has the 24 year-old, having fought off testicular cancer when he was barely 20. Having done his time as Carter’s understudy, he had no issues stepping into the spotlight with a dynamic display.
The tip is that Tom Taylor will take over the pivot role, rather than Colin Slade who has 10 tests under his belt and plenty of talent, but still looks a bit skittish at times under pressure.
Taylor is the son of 1980s All Black midfield back Warwick Taylor, and is blessed with a cool head, a brave heart, and the ability to kick off both feet.
Barrett should be back for the Pumas test in Hamilton in a fortnight, while Carter is expected to be fit for the Springbok test at Eden Park, but Cruden is unlikely to be back before the overseas trip to Argentina and South Africa in late September/early October.
The All Blacks picked up five valuable points away from home with their Sydney victory, one that has left the Wallabies with an even longer list of problems to solve.
There was ample evidence why Jake White warned earlier this year that Jesse Mogg was not ready for test rugby. Some probably wrote that off as Jake’s conservative side getting the better of him, but the wise man was again shown to be spot on. In particular Mogg’s dependence on his left boot was ruthlessly exposed.
And after his dazzling efforts against the Lions, Israel Folau was a non-factor. With Matt Toomua making little effort to take the ball ahead, and merely shovelling it on, the All Blacks' outside backs were able to rush up and cut off the supply line before it got to Folau, so they very rarely had to tackle him. He touched the ball at most six times, and also showed little urgency chasing kicks in either direction.
Folau is a weapon, a brilliant runner, with unbelievable aerial skills, but he has to get involved more if the Wallabies are to compete. Fullback might be a better bet, and Quade Cooper at flyhalf would surely see him get more ball, either through the hand or from Cooper's high-risk-high-reward kicking game.
But the biggest hurdles Australia have to overcome are psychological.
They seemed fired-up for kickoff, but as the game wore on, they simply didn’t look like a team who thought they could win. While they will surely play better in Wellington, they will need a fair drop in standards from the opposition.
The All Blacks say they also need to get better, which has become a bit of a standard line. Their discipline was poor in the first half in Sydney, allowing the Wallabies to stay in touch, and they had one or two issues with their set piece which the Springbok coaching staff will have filed away for future reference.
To be fair to Ewen McKenzie, it’s a very tough job that he has landed, taking over after an energy- and soul-sapping Lions series ahead of the toughest international championship of the lot.
He has plenty of talent in his team, but it's going to take time to knock that talent into shape and build a new team dynamic. The player he is missing badly is Scott Higginbotham, who would provide the fire in the belly that the Wallabies need.
As for the Springboks, they powered up big time against the Pumas.
Argentina need their best on the field to be competitive, and they looked a bit rudderless without their outstanding skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, and could not afford to lose the grunt power of big Patricio Albacete so early on.
They also had to spend 20 minutes with just 14 on the field, but so often yellow cards are the result of relentless pressure and reflect as much on the domination of the non-offending team as the indiscipline of the culprits.
Either way, against the big marauding Springbok pack, it is a recipe for disaster.
Two guys that really stand out for me are Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen. I have heard players saying that Etzebeth brings so many of the attributes that we all saw from Bakkies Botha, which is a good thing for his teammates and not great news for his opponents – and I mean that as a compliment. Vermeulen is an awesome presence. The more minutes the Boks can get out of them the better the team fortunes will be.
Willie le Roux brings flair and expression to fullback, Bryan Habana is in his best form for years and after my comments last week, I must say how sharp Fourie du Preez looked.
First impressions say very much so.