Future of SA, NZ rugby looking promising
Last weekend gave us a look at the future of New Zealand and South African rugby.
Firstly it’s congratulations to the Baby Boks for winning the IRB under-20 Championship and ending New Zealand's four year domination of this excellent event.
They were the better team in the final, as acknowledged by New Zealand skipper Bryn Hall. They gained a vital edge up front through their forward pack, their driving maul was outstanding, and they took their chances when they came. There are some really good prospects to come out of this team.
While the New Zealand players will be disappointed to lose, New Zealand rugby won’t be too downcast. This team lacked the experience of some of their predecessors, they did well to bounce back from an early loss to Wales to make the final, and they will learn a lot from playing in front of such a big crowd against top shelf opposition.
It’s amazing to think that players like Johan Goosen, Sam Cane and TJ Perenara could have played in the tournament had they not been injured or required elsewhere.
The timing of this emerging talent, and the young guys who’ve already stepped up to test rugby, couldn’t be better, right at the start of the four year “cycle”. Touch wood, these guys will be around for at least the next two World Cups.
The tournament was notable for some early upsets, which had the IRB publicity machine trumpeting a growing of the standards across the globe, and they definitely have improved, but in reality the weather and pitch conditions early on had a levelling effect and when play moved to the better surface at Newlands, the cream rose to the top.
New Zealand's future was probably more evident in the test at Hamilton, where three graduates of last year's champion under-20 side featured in a 60-nil annihilation of Ireland.
Cane, Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett were all in the 2011 Baby Blacks along with Ben Tameifuna and Brad Shields, who are in the ABs wider training group. Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden and Sam Whitelock are others to come out of recent age group teams.
Some of these guys have been fast tracked a lot earlier than might have been the case in times gone by, but the defection of several World Cup players to earn their retirement money in Europe and Japan, and a few injuries, has propelled them into the front line, and they will be well seasoned come the next RWC.
The All Blacks' win over Ireland has to be put in context. The Irish were whacked after their gallant effort in Christchurch. They were without five frontline players and at the end of a ridiculously long season where some of them have played nearly 50 games. It showed.
But the All Blacks were also without two of their “big three”, namely Dan Carter and Kieran Read, and coming off a none too impressive effort in Christchurch, so it was a great turnaround.
Someone had a $10 000 (R64 000) bet at the New Zealand TAB (betting agency) on Ireland to win and after just 20 minutes would have known they’d blown their chips.
It took that long for New Zealand to score four tries and from there on it was just a matter of “by how much?”
Dan Carter now has not just a good understudy, but genuine competition for his number 10 jersey in the form of Cruden. He always had options either side of him as he took the ball to the line, but it was his combination with Sonny Bill Williams that the Irish had no answer to.
Williams can no longer merely be considered a rugby league “convert”. He is a genuine international rugby player who is going from strength to strength. In Hamilton he demonstrated a complete range of skills, running powerfully, offloading accurately, and even putting in a delicate grubber kick for Israel Dagg's try.
Again, there is a dilemma with Ma’a Nonu having been stood down for this series to get some rest, after playing the New Zealand off season in Japan. Nonu has been great in partnership with Conrad Smith but I would go for Williams without any hesitation come the Rugby Championship, even if the rumours persist that he is going back to rugby league next year.
Of course the true test of the young players in the All Black side, if not the whole team, is still to come.
It is one thing to beat a battered Ireland side in Hamilton. It will be something quite different to take on South Africa in Jo’berg, or Australia in Brisbane, or even Argentina at La Plata.
Australia were again a bit fortunate to come away from the test against Wales with a win…the Welsh blew countless chances throughout the series and really only have themselves to blame for not winning at least one of the tests. With James Horwill, their outstanding lock out for the season, the Wallabies will be praying David Pocock and Will Genia stay fit.
South Africa will be disappointed in not having completed the sweep of England.
Clearly the absence of Willem Alberts and Frans Steyn was felt, and without Alberts the Boks didn’t own the advantage line like they had in the previous tests.
It’s hardly the end of the world, but the result will surely have given Heyneke Meyer food for thought.
He may have to reconsider his decision to leave Heinrich Brussow out, while the penetrating runs of Juan de Jongh might have made a difference, and provided a foil to the power of Manu Tuilagi in midfield. And if Morne Steyn is not kicking goals with his old precision, are there more compelling options at 10?
Steyn has done some great things for the Springboks but Pat Lambie, for example, is more likely to take the defensive line on, and as we saw in Hamilton, flyhalves who do that open up so many possibilities for those around them.
It’s nice to be able to choose between such good players, a luxury we have in both NZ and SA, and the Boks have blooded some quality young players in this series.
Now we turn our focus back to Super Rugby, and while it will be a cut-throat battle to find the six teams for the playoffs, it is of greater concern how the SR coaches handle their international stars coming straight off a bruising three-test series.
They are in a difficult situation…some of these players could do with a week off, but they are needed by their franchises.
Trying to play Super Rugby either side of the June tests is hardly ideal, but there is no obvious way around it.
Footnote: On ReUnion this week we are naming a “Best of the June Internationals Fifteen” and some of you will be pleased to know it differs a bit from the side I named last week. My producer and co-selector pulled rank on a couple of positions!