Sometimes 40 minutes of quality is enough
Rugby is an 80 minute game, as we keep getting reminded, but 40 minutes of quality rugby was enough for the All Blacks and Springboks to get through their tasks at the weekend.
Fans tend to get a bit frustrated when this happens….we can dream of flawless performances from start to finish, when the reality is that rugby by its very nature does not lend itself to perfection, especially not when played at the fast, furious, physical clip of the modern era.
So the Boks had a strong first half and were held scoreless in the second. The All Blacks had a sloppy first half and an excellent second. Bottom line, neither was in danger of losing.
It is easy to focus on the “shortcomings” of your own team, and forget to credit the opposition for their role, so let’s give some praise to Italy and Scotland.
Firstly, credit the Scots for not giving up at 21-3 down. They did what they did against the ABs the week before, and just kept coming back. They were staring down a hiding after getting bashed about in the first half but showed great resolve and courage, even if they could manage only one try against the excellent Bok defence, as against the three they got against the All Blacks.
It was interesting to see Jean de Villiers go for touch finders instead of kicking for goal….that sometimes happens when a team knows that everyone is expecting them to win by a big score. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s best to take the three points, keep the board ticking over and make the opposition chase the game….but it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
And give credit to Italy for their bold showing in the first half against the All Blacks.
In front of a capacity 75 000 crowd at the fantastic Stadio Olimpico, the Azzurri were as brave and constructive as they had been negative and destructive when they last met in Italy, three years ago in Milan.
I was loathe to criticise Nick Mallett at the time because he is one of the more outstanding fellows I have encountered in rugby, but I felt damage limitation was a hallmark of his time with the Italians, whereas new coach Jacques Brunel has opted for a more positive approach.
The local rugby people I spoke to suggested that the Italian players maybe have a more natural affinity with a French coach, but whatever the reason their performance in the first half was the best I have ever seen by an Italian side, and with a bit of luck they might have been in front at the break.
They moved the ball, they ran hard at the defence and they forced errors. They got away with a bit, but referee Alain Rolland, sensing the positive attitude from both sides, went with it, instead of blowing the pea out of his whistle as he has done in the past.
But the All Blacks cleaned up their work around the breakdown which had been sloppy in the first half, and showing their trademark superior fitness wore the Italians down and broke them open.
A big difference was that when Italy were forced to go to the bench, they did not have the same quality of players in reserve.
But it was a great occasion and it is tremendous to see such big crowds going to rugby matches in Italy…that’s a total of 150 000 to have watched the last two Italy-All Black games.
The game is growing there, and they are making a bold step of restricting the number of foreign players allowed to play in key positions in their club sides, so as to develop more home-grown talent. That is a bold move, but one more Northern Hemisphere nations might do well to consider following, instead of just allowing their clubs to buy in their key weapons from offshore.
So what lies ahead?
South Africa now face an England side that I thought would be too good for Australia up front, but came up well short.
Give the Wallabies their dues, they were a quantum improvement on their performance against France, scrumming well and using their backs to good advantage, but England were shockingly bad.
All South Africa need to do is watch their discipline and look after the ball and they should win.
For the All Blacks, Wales and England remain.
The clash with Wales has been much anticipated, given that they are Six Nations champions, and many felt were very unlucky not to advance to last year's World Cup final, after their outstanding captain Sam Warburton was unfortunately red carded against France.
Last year there was a bit of talk coming out of Wales that they could have beaten the All Blacks in the final, but that has rather evaporated given that they have lost their last five games, including an abject defeat to Samoa at the weekend.
I doubt the All Blacks will take them at all lightly, however. They have not beaten New Zealand since 1953, and usually fire up very well for a test against them, hoping to make history. No All Black player wants to be in the first team to lose to Wales in nearly 60 years.
The All Blacks have used all 32 of their squad members through the first two tests on tour, with a view to peaking for Wales and England as they seek to go through the year unbeaten. Their player management and conditioning has been very good and they still have very few injuries to worry about.
Finally if I could just note the passing of Alexander “Ian” Kirkpatrick.
I wasn’t around at the time, but from everything I have read he was a popular member of the 1956 Springbok team in New Zealand. They lost that series, but he and some of his teammates were able to avenge that series defeat to the All Blacks four years later in South Africa. He later became a great coach and I know kept in contact with many of his New Zealand contemporaries.
We have lost two great players in the past week, with the passing of Bob Scott, fullback of the 1949 All Blacks to South Africa, a man described by the peerless Bok captain of the day, Hennie Muller, as “the finest player I have ever seen in any position”.
They were both men who played a huge role in the evolution of our game.