New tournament, but business as usual
If you take a surface view the two matches played on the opening weekend of the new Castle Rugby Championship were remarkably similar.
Both winning teams scored 27 points, and both the All Blacks and the Springboks looked to have the game comfortably wrapped up after half an hour only to labour to victory margins that eventually flattered their opponents. The South Africans were more than 21 points better than newcomers Argentina in Cape Town, and although the Wallabies came back to threaten on the scoreboard, there was always really going to be one winner in Sydney.
But it is those last two words, “in Sydney”, that set the two performances apart. While the Springboks were full value for their win and in many ways, if you take away the cruel injury blow to Bismarck du Plessis that has ruled him out for the rest of the year, they made the perfect start to the competition, there wasn’t enough in their performance to suggest they will break what became the general trend when the Sanzar competition featured just three teams and was known as the Tri-Nations.
A year such as last year, when Australia won the tournament, was a rare event in the Tri-Nations. Generally it was the All Blacks who won it, and they did it with such monotonous regularity that you could say that a Kiwi triumph was business as usual.
Since 2007 the trend has changed a bit in Super Rugby, but if you look at that competition overall, you would have to say something similar – the Chiefs winning the Sanzar regional competition two weeks meant it was a return to business as usual (Kiwi teams have won Super Rugby 11 times against just five wins by the other nations).
It might seem premature to say after just one round that this year is going to be a return to business as usual in the Sanzar international tournament that now parades under a new name and features an extra team, but is it?
The All Blacks may not always have looked that flush in winning their opening game, but the match was played in Sydney, which has been a lot kinder to Australia over the years than Auckland, where the two teams are set to meet again in a few days from now.
To go across the Tasman Sea and win so easily when not playing their best underlines just how superior the All Blacks are to the Wallabies, and at this early stage it looks like those neutrals who hope to see the Kiwis displaced from their perch are going to have to support South Africa.
The Boks, on the evidence of Newlands, might at least have a scrum that can stand up to a New Zealand unit that laid the foundation for the victory. Two All Black tries against Australia came off scrum ball, there were also two penalties that were kicked, for a total of 18 points. Where the Kiwis have always been vulnerable, the lineouts, they may still be vulnerable, so it was encouraging from a South African viewpoint to see Andries Bekker cutting such a commanding presence in the formation in his comeback test match after two years away battling injury.
The importance of the lineouts in games against New Zealand could be what counts against Keegan Daniel when the Boks head for Australasia early next month for the games in Perth and Dunedin. With Pierre Spies out for the rest of the competition, it was good to see Duane Vermeulen making a solid return for Western Province in the Currie Cup in Kimberley at the weekend.
But while the Boks may be the team to push the All Blacks, South African fans should not be too optimistic. The Sydney game was not a great advertisement for rugby but the All Blacks were significantly better than their trans-Tasman rivals, and would have won by significantly more were it not for some atrocious passing that prevented them from finishing off on a few occasions when a try looked a probability.
Apart from the brilliant running of fullback Israel Dagg (who was responsible for some of that poor passing) and the scrumming, it was interesting to see the influence that Kieran Read had at No 8, and his allround performance underlined how much he was missed by the Crusaders in their recent Super Rugby semifinal.
The overriding impression of both the Sydney and Cape Town matches was that the winning teams had an extra gear that they could engage at any time and if the Boks can win their next games in Mendoza and Perth it could set up a big occasion show-down between the two teams in Dunedin.
That though is in the future, right now it’s the All Blacks who have the proven ability to win away from home and it’s why they are even stronger favourites after the opening weekend than they were before the kick-off.
WEEKEND RESULTS (home teams first)
Australia 19 New Zealand 27
South Africa 27 Argentina 6