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International season starts with a bang

There’s nothing quite like the start of the international season.

New Zealand is already in the grip of the Lions tour, the Springboks have opened up a promised new chapter in some style, we’ve had a clutch of noteworthy performances across the international spectrum, and, if that’s not enough, there is the Under-20 championship in Georgia.

Might as well start with the Lions tour, because the whole thing went up a level on Saturday night when they knocked over the previously unbeaten Crusaders, the top ranked team in Super Rugby.

Game Three

It was a result the Lions, and the tour, really needed after a poor start, and it showed that they certainly can be a threat in the test series.

They showed exactly how they are going to go about it, too, with an oppressive rush defence, and an excellent kick chase from a combination that will almost all start the first test in two weeks’ time.

They didn’t score a try, but created a handful of possibilities, and if they can start turning those into the odd five-pointer it could make things very interesting.

A competitive series is what we all want to see, and to eliminate the possibility of losing to all five Kiwi franchises at just the second hurdle, has certainly made New Zealanders sit up and take notice, just when people were, prematurely, starting to write them off.

If they can become only the second Lions team to win a series in New Zealand, nothing else would matter, not their midweek results, and certainly not their style of play.

New Zealand media and a good number of fans had also been scathing about the lack of X factor and attacking ambition in the first two games, but clearly had been a bit too quick to judge.

It is true they don’t have a Sonny Bill Williams, a Ben Smith, a Barrett or a Milner-Skudder, players who can make the extraordinary look routine, but they have plenty of experience, some genuine quality in key positions and a coach who has a proven record of success in melding together the disparate elements of the four teams that go into one.

I felt they would struggle with the pace of the New Zealand game, but against a pack featuring six All Blacks, they managed to strongly influence, if not totally control the tempo of the game, and shut down a Crusaders attack that had been scoring five tries a game on average, keeping the red and blacks try-less for the first time in two full years.

The Crusaders were at times guilty of trying to play Super Rugby against an efficient test team, and failed to adjust to what was happening.

They also seemed befuddled by the referee, a Frenchman.

The difference between interpretations in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres has long been a subject of debate, but here I think we have a case of the Crusaders not being allowed to do what they are in Super Rugby, where the refs tend to promote continuity and allow the game to flow.

There were fan complaints that the Lions rush defence was often offside, but really it was a case of the Lions recognising what they could and couldn’t get away with, something New Zealand teams are often “accused” of. It’s just playing smart, and for once it was the New Zealand team that failed to adjust.

Of greater concern was the set piece, where Mathieu Reynal allowed the lineout to form a lot closer than we are used to, allowing the Lions to disrupt the normally efficient Crusaders, and at scrum time, where the Crusaders feel they were hard done by.

Again it came down to interpretation, and underlined the risk of Sanzar allowing a more liberal application of the laws, in this case the pre-engage in order to keep the game moving, although it was interesting to hear Mark Hammett, the Highlanders coach suggest the Crusaders set up isn’t always regarded as kosher by other New Zealand teams either.

In a way it could prove a very valuable pointer for the All Blacks ahead of the test series, where Jaco Peyper has been entrusted with the first test, with the second and third in the hands of Frenchmen Romain Poite and Jerome Garces.

Game Four

Another loss, this time to a Highlanders team without seven players required for All Blacks or Maori All Black duties, and another two or three out with injuries.

In the end you could argue it hardly mattered who won, it was such a great contest in front of a sell-out crowd under the Dunedin roof (thank the lucky stars for that roof, it was awful outside), and decided by just one point after the nerveless Marty Banks nailed a wide angle penalty with just a few minutes to play.

Few of the Lions team are likely to feature in the test line-up, especially after the excellent Courtenay Lawes was forced off with concussion, although CJ Stander will be hard to leave out at the rate he’s playing, and Rhys Webb showed he will be an elite level backup to Conor Murray at scrum half.

But the midweek team can often provide the touring party with real morale boosters, and these guys have now lost twice, so perhaps the result is significant.

The Highlanders played with their usual courage and showed tremendous spirit, a star team rather than a team of stars, although their one starting All Black, Waisake Naholo, was immense.

Now the tour goes on to Rotorua and the “fourth test” against the Maori All Blacks. Make sure you watch this one, if its half as good as the corresponding game 12 years ago it will be memorable.

And it will be one the Lions will feel they really do have to win in their last real shakedown before the first test.


I watched with even greater interest than normal, the start of the Springboks campaign, having bought into the talk of new dawns, new approach, and so on.

We’ve heard that sort of stuff before, but there was plenty to like about this performance.

If you’re going to play someone in the year of a Lions tour then it has to be the French, who should give you the best test, even if they are at the end of a gruelling club season.

Also keeping things in context is the defiant overspill of the club season into the test window, which took a smattering of players from Clermont and Toulon out of contention.

And there was the flurry of points that came when Brice Dulin was in the bin for a penalty try/yellow card call that fitted into the category of tough but correct.

But don’t let that detract too much from a Bok performance that offers real hope of a much better year in 2017.

There was real energy about the Springboks, and they played with confidence at a good tempo.

The forwards gave Elton Jantjies the time and space he needs to be effective, and this helped bring some of the hallmarks of the Lions game to the international stage. A more exacting test will be when he is put under greater pressure, but this was promising.

But the player who really stood out was Malcolm Marx, who brought a level of dynamism and power that is a level above anything we saw last year.

Dane Coles has taken the hookers role to a new level in recent years, but Marx can have a similar effect on the Springboks with some real skill to go with his outrageous power game.

There are risks in trying to take a Super Rugby template into the test arena….it was done with very mixed success for the All Blacks back in the John Mitchell/Robbie Deans era, but with a much stronger and eminently more qualified coaching team this year, Allister Coetzee might just be able to find the right balance.

The Lions have set the bar, and can provide the spine of the team, complimented by the likes of Etzebeth, Kriel, Du Toit and the impressive Du Preez. Looking ahead, Jaco Kriel has to be in the mix, while the return of Ruan Combrinck will balance out the three-quarter line where Raymond Rhule is a tremendous attacker but severely limited on defence.

But it looks a nicely balanced team, and those energy levels right through the team must owe something to the absence of worn out Europe and UK-based players.

France are likely to be better in the second test, so we will wait and see, but this was a very good start.

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