Let's Pour One Out for Oz
Remember Richie Mo’unga? Four weeks ago he was prospectively anointed the next great All Blacks fly-half. Even mid-way through the first half of the opening game, while the Wallabies still remembered how to defend with commitment, discipline, and technique, Blood and Mud podcast voice Josh Gardner pondered the topic, stemming from his question as to whether Beauden Barrett’s strengths were still enough to make up for his shortcomings.
Nobody bothered to tell the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year his time was up. Barrett’s display of head’s up rugby combined with his sneaky and cruel pace are worth the price of admission alone. Yet too much focus on Barrett covers up the all-around threat of these All Blacks. They are warming up, and this side at full throttle will be something to behold.
The first two rounds are in the sheds, and we have an extra week to force too many conclusions and overstate unsupportable assertions. Should we just dive in? Yes, indeed.
What have we learned?
- Poor defense will be punished. It will be punished hard and punished fast. The Wallabies, Puma, and Springboks all had a go at poor commitment and tackling. The results remain as predictable as always.
- Rassie Erasmus still has a lot of work to do with the Springbok renewal project. We can see potential for South Africa to once again ascend to the top three and challenge the All Blacks. We also see how quickly mistakes can escalate into a free-fall of abject play. One wonders who their on-field leaders are going to be. Kolisi seems a good fit as captain, but other key players need to offer more to right the ship in a storm.
- New coach honeymoons are real, but how long they last remains a mystery. One anticipates Mario Ledesma’s will last until five minutes before half time in Nelson. The All Blacks will conjure a try just before the hooter, setting the stage for the onslaught to come in the second half.
- Australia will continue to defy expectations, as they often do, but a sustained upward trajectory remains hard to believe in on this evidence. Many rugby supporters Down Under are in the dual state of desperation and grief over the state of the game there. Hyperbole does not help, but the situation for the game as a whole there is serious, if not terminal. Wise heads would avoid killing the patient based solely on an All Black rampage. These same Wallabies did well in June, and the two first halves they delivered here would stand well
- The breakdown remains a problem for referees, and current laws and interpretations by World Rugby may mean policing it well is near-impossible. Social media focused on All Blacks examples of illegal poaching they turned into tries, which highlight issues around interpretation and the speed premium now at play. For me, a bigger issue is the tolerance being shown for the diving, should-first clear-out. Dangerous and clearly against the laws, even Wayne Barnes missed a number of instances, particularly some interventions by Liam Squire. This part of the game needs to be addressed.
A look at each team suggests we have more points to consider. As with my preview, I will limit myself to three for each team.
Mario Ledesma is a legend for the Puma, and his start as head coach has brought enthusiasm and passion. Of equal import, Argentina fought like street cats against South Africa, using every trick and refusing to give an inch. Clearly he is on to something, but they need to sustain this level of effort and resolve throughout the campaign. A split with Australia has to be the minimum aspiration, even if the All Blacks remain out of reach.
The back line contains a bunch of new faces. While the absence of players like Cordero, Imhoff, and others were a real problem a year ago, these new young players give Argentina something new. They are fast and they can play with the ball in tight spaces. If they can defend well on a consistent basis, we can look forward to watching them for some time.
We should remember Argentina gave the All Blacks as hard a time as anyone at the last World Cup. I do not anticipate an historic win against them this year, but a real scare would be something the entire rugby world can get behind. Mark Saturday, 29 September in your calendar, and join me in hoping we have something to cheer for, at least till just before half when the All Blacks score against the run of play.
I doubt Michael Cheika feels too much consolation in noting the Wallabies improved over the past week. Desperation has led to calls for his sacking, but where does Australia turn? The contributions of Nathan Grey, Mick Byrne, and Stephen Larkham so far do not fire the imagination. The difficult tenure of Robbie Deans spoke volumes about the culture of the ARU and their approach to the game. A new coach cannot conjure new Test-class players, something they are lacking.
The Wallabies are getting better, but can they keep up? They welcome the Springboks to Suncorp, and should fancy their chances. I cannot help but wonder if Matt Toomua deserves a chance to shape the attack. Koroibete is dangerous in space, but without a direct threat in the centres, defenses just lay traps out wide and he is not yet an all-around winger. Back line selection for this side is hard enough without injuries.
Australian rugby might do well to stop talking about the Bledisloe Cup for awhile. Yes, it carries real history and its coveted deeply, but one also must be able to celebrate being ‘best of the rest’. For all their struggles, the Wallabies have been second best in the south more often than not and should take some satisfaction while also striving to fix real and deep problems. The line between success and failure can be thin. Constant talk about New Zealand just becomes a drag when the re-building process needs to focus on some positives.
Name another team that could be so patient with Codie Taylor’s erratic throwing in the lineout and Barrett’s worse-than-normal goal kicking. Barrett kicked about 80 percent in 2017 and few could question the consensus he was the best 10 in the world, such is the unique threat he presents with ball in hand. A flurry of articles compare his game this past Saturday to Dan Carter’s 2005 display versus the Lions as the best-ever performance. The answer or one’s personal preference does not matter. Everyone who loves rugby wins when such play warrants the question.
The return of Brodie Retallick and Ben Smith, with Dane Coles yet to come, mean beating this team will merit special celebration. Did anyone miss Reiko Ioane or Ryan Crotty? Sonny Bill is warming up as well. I played fullback, and watching Ben Smith operate with such calm excellence satisfies me as much as anything. Retallick reminds us the competition among James Ryan, Maro Itoje, and Alun Wyn Jones (heck, Sam Whitelock deserves inclusion) for lock honours is for the second spot.
The All Blacks are improving, perhaps by the minute. If this keeps up November is going to be one of those Test months when the All Blacks coming to town is once again a special occasion, just not the way England fans may have been thinking for the past few years. Steve Hansen likely would not mind a loss along the way, as another blitz through the field will turn up the hubris to 11. Sure enough, it has begun.
Defending out wide remains a real problem. Argentina used quality possession to remind us what England exposed in June when they got quick ball to the wings. This defensive frailty surely goes beyond the players and has some linkage to coaching. They have the athletes to defend, though for all his class with the ball, Willie le Roux has never been a defensive stalwart. This problem is not the biggest one, but it makes winning hard when opponents can so quickly rack up points.
Forward play also is still a work in progress. Pack cohesion seems to be lacking, in spite of their size and strength. Further, they seemed to get worse as the game progressed in Mendoza. Winning in Brisbane will require more possession and forward dominance. They have the players, but road form continues to be a source of concern.
South Africa showed in June they were comfortable with an open, high-speed game, only letting England get the better of them in the mud at sea level. Yet, Argentina burned them with quickness of feet and thought, while holding their own in the arm wrestle. As I watch, I wonder about their on-field savvy. Who are the senior players who shepherd the team through a game? Pollard looks worse now than in June.