Not the start we expected
The All Blacks and Springboks got the winners' points, which is all that really matters, but both opening tests in the Rugby Championship didn’t quite scale the peaks of expectation, and there’s probably a simple reason.
In the past our teams have come straight out of the June internationals into Tri-Nations. They’ve had game time, training time, and quality off-field time together against some good opposition to springboard into the Tri-Nats.
But now with the expanded Super Rugby format, the players are going back to their franchises for between three and six weeks, and a lot of that momentum with the national team is lost…. or at least it certainly seemed the case at the weekend.
Breakdowns in play certainly cost the Springboks a bonus point in their test against Argentina, and the All Blacks certainly created enough chances to do the same, but lacked the killer punches.
The Aussies at least had the benefit of more training time together, with just the Reds having made the playoffs, and then lasting just one week, which allowed Robbie Deans extra time with his national squad ahead of the opening clash in Sydney.
But I think all teams have an excuse for being a little rusty in the weekend's opening round.
It’s a shame, because TRC, and before that Tri-Nats, are elite competitions involving the best three teams in the world plus a welcome newcomer. The fans, the players, the people who put up the money, all deserve better, but with the Southern Hemisphere bosses intent on wringing as much as they can out of Super Rugby, and the Northern Hemisphere nations refusing to budge on the June window, there’s no quick fix.
The All Blacks should have cleared out on the Wallabies, but were not sharp enough to finish off three of the five clear try-scoring chances they created.
The match was spoiled by too many handling errors and a nit-picking performance by referee Allain Rolland, who just about blew the pea out of his whistle. 27 penalties is a guaranteed game killer. Why could Jaco Peyper or Craig Joubert not have done this game?
At least the Boks and Pumas had Steve Walsh who is more interested in promoting a good spectacle.
Obviously a comfortable win for the Springboks was overshadowed by the loss of Bismark du Plessis. Anyone who has seen our ReUnion show will know we are great admirers of the Sharks hooker. He is a phenomenal player, IMHO, a player who evokes comparisons with New Zealand's greatest hooker Sean Fitzpatrick.
Like “Fitzy”, Bismark is a powerfully built player, with great handling, deceptive speed and tremendous ability to advance the ball. I would rate Du Plessis as an even better ball carrier than Fitzy. Both players were what you would politely describe as “abrasive”. Du Plessis has given away some needless penalties in his time, while Fitzpatrick was notorious for getting under the opposition's skin. The only time I ever saw the great John Eales completely lose it on the rugby field was djuring a test in 1997 when he absolutely blew up in the face of constant niggling from Fitzpatrick.
But the Aucklander matured, and developed into a great captain, and afterwards something of a statesman, something that Du Plessis is well capable of emulating.
So to lose him, especially on top of the injuries to Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies and above all JP Pietersen, is a real blow to South Africa’s chances.
Heyneke Meyer is fortunate that South Africa has great depth and he has very good stand-ins in Adriaan Strauss and Tiaan Liebenberg, even if neither has quite the same presence on the field as Du Plessis. Meyer has also done a bold thing in calling up Craig Burden. He doesn’t have a lot of experience at very top level, but from what I’ve seen of him he is an absolute dynamo, with explosive speed.
The Boks will know they missed a good opportunity to take the early lead in the championship by not taking the four-try bonus in Cape Town.
The Pumas didn’t look completely out of their depth, but struggled to stay with the explosive pace that is a hallmark of Southern Hemisphere rugby. When the Boks won quick ruck ball and got their big men running onto it, the Pumas were battling to hang on.
This is hardly surprising, given that most of them ply their trade in the muscular, but slower-tempo world of the Top 14 in France. Hopefully they will adjust, but it will take time.
Having said that I am sure they will be a tougher prospect in front of their own parochial fans in Mendoza this weekend.
And finally: given that it has taken a lot of maneuvering, politicking with the IRB and persuading of the bosses of Argentina, who still preside over an amateur domestic rugby scene and for whom the leap into professionalism is a quantum one, and given the significance of the first new entity in the Sanzar competition after 17 years, would it not have been a sporting thing to do to give the Pumas a home game to mark their entry into the championship?