How things can change in a week
Just seven days on from routing Ireland in the first of the three tests, the All Blacks almost ended up with egg all over their faces after a torrid scrap in Christchurch.
Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks in 107 years of trying. The closest they have come was in 1973 when they drew 10-all in Dublin and just missed a sideline conversion that would have won the match.
They have been denied a couple of other times in tight matches but no-one expected them to come close this time.
They might have finally done it had Jonathan Sexton landed a 48-metre penalty after Israel Dagg had been yellow carded for a late challenge on Ireland’s fullback Rob Kearney. The penalty and card were fully justified, even if the penalty was awarded two metres closer to the posts than it should have been, which might have been an issue had it snuck over.
Ireland were a hundred per cent better than they had been the previous week, tightening up their defence, cutting off the supply of ball to the All Black outsides, improving their scrum to the point where they gained the upper hand, and competing ferociously at the breakdown.
The All Blacks were not short of motivation, wanting to put on a good show for the people of Christchurch in their first test for two years, but they were several notches below their effort at Eden Park, which is a bit mystifying. They looked off rhythm for much of the game as Ireland managed to turn it into a dog fight
The assumption many are making is that this will prove to be a wake-up call, that the young guys in the team now have a real idea of what test rugby is about, and that they’ll bounce back in Hamilton this week and score a big win.
I’m not sure that can be taken for granted. The All Blacks are clearly missing the massive physical presence of Brad Thorn, and Jerome Kaino, they’ve lost Ali Williams and Victor Vito at least until the start of the Rugby Championship, and Keven Mealamu is just coming back.
It may be the last test of the series, but how they respond to the narrow escape of Christchurch will be the first big test for the new All Black coaching team.
Still, they won it, and they showed good resolve, determination and control in those final few moments, so it could have been a lot worse. The young guys in the team would have learned far more from that narrow win than the blow out the week beforehand.
The Irish media have been complaining about a penalty against them for an illegal scrum wheel at a crucial stage, but replays showed the referee got it spot on…you cannot wheel the scrum by walking around, you have to do it by pushing. It was from that penalty that the All Blacks grabbed their chance to press forward and win the game through a Dan Carter dropped goal.
Australia got up in the last minute too, thanks to a penalty to “Aussie” Mike Harris, recently imported from New Zealand and eligible to play for Australia because of a grandparent.
It was a stupid penalty for collapsing a maul that gave the Aussies the chance to pull it out of the fire, but that game could have gone either way. It looks like skipper James Horwill is gone for the rest of the year, which is a huge blow to their hopes of defending the Tri-Nations (Rugby Championship) title they won last year.
Clearly, the Springboks were the most impressive winners of the big three, although Argentina’s win over France rates a mention.
Yes, the Boks allowed England to come back at them in the second half, but that first 20 or so minutes were outstanding.
I note that when the game got tight, so too did the Springboks, but I really liked the way they moved the ball in the first half, and why wouldn’t you, with JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana looking so sharp. JP is so much better suited to wing.
Based on this weekend’s form you would rate the Boks slight favourites for what should be a fantastic Rugby Championship, but I wouldn’t expect the All Blacks to play that badly again this winter.
Onto other matters.
1) I was asked some time ago to pick a “form 15” in Super Rugby, and again last week for a “best of” from the just completed weekend of test action. I’m not as keen on picking these teams as some pundits, but I’ll give it a go, and please try and keep the abuse to a minimum!
This is based on the past two weeks of rugby, by the way.
Leigh Halfpenny (Wales), JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers (SA), Sonny Bill Williams, Dan Carter (NZ), Will Genia (Aus), Kieran Read (NZ), David Pocock (Aus), Sean O’Brien (Ire), Eben Etsebeth (SA), Brodie Retallick (NZ), Adam Jones (Wales), Bismark du Plessis (SA), Cian Healey (Ire)
Apologies to Brian O’Driscoll, Ben Youngs, Willem Alberts and Beast Mtawarira, who’ve all been great in positions that frankly I found almost impossible to decide upon.
2) A strange coincidence perhaps, but Morne Steyn’s defence has greatly improved, while his goal kicking has started to look almost human.
3) Baby Blacks v Baby Boks in IRB under-20 final. A reflection of the amazing talent production line in both countries although the road to the finals was tougher this year with both having to come back from defeats in the pool rounds. Was it just coincidence, or did the quality teams start to show out, and the upsets stop when the games were played in better conditions than for the early matches, which clearly had a levelling effect.
The NZRU may regret not allowing players on Super Rugby contracts to be eligible for the New Zealand team. New All Black Sam Cane was one, fair enough, but TJ Perenara who has been brilliant for the Hurricanes, was stopped from going to South Africa, and instead played a meaningless “friendly” for the ‘Canes against an under strength Reds team and broke his ankle in the 78th minute and will be out for the year.