After the best drilled teams peaked in Super Rugby and showed what thirty fit men can produce entertainment-wise, test season arrived and we are seeing the usual realignment of skills to suit even bigger collisions and higher stakes.
There were plenty of indications the All Blacks’ season opener in Buenos Aires would be a good test to manage expectations for.
Argentina is a tricky place to play regardless of experience level and the All Blacks were missing their most senior Crusaders. Throwing a whole bunch of new combinations together and sending them out in front of a highly energized horde of Latin fans was a ballsy roll of Steve Hansen’s dice.
The Pumas had far fewer problems gelling because most had been running in the same elite pack all year, fighting their way to an honourable defeat in the Super Rugby final (against many of the same men the All Blacks were missing).
The test was also policed by an Aussie ref who on his bad nights makes howlingly bad decisions and sinbins half the front row, while on good nights is merely guilty of annoying interpretations and blocking midfielders’ running lines.
In many ways it was a test of team culture. Sure, we were right not to expect anything too memorable, but only a fool would bet on All Black mana being significantly weakened by the elevation of deserving newbies. Team culture held some loose seams from bursting in critical moments.
The biggest were on defence, wing Sevu Reece and centre Anton Lienert-Brown combining to stop colossus Marcos Kremer in the very jaws of the goalposts, or Beauden Barrett showing Ramiro Moyano the sideline and mowing him down within a yard of the corner.
Not so much second five Ngani Laumape burrowing over from a quick tap or lock Brodie Retallick intercepting Nicolas Sanchez and distancing the cover by ten yards over fifty, grinning from ear to ear. Those were just examples of the fifteen-man strike power threatened by the All Blacks no matter who starts.
The seams had been stretched by constant errors of handling and ball security. The Chiefs on the park made almost as many mistakes as they did in their Canberra quarterfinal, the Hurricanes looked unaccustomed to cool-headed decision-making at this level and fullback Ben Smith dropped more than half the high kicks that came his way.
When Sanchez raised one final bomb Smith was beaten in the air by his opposite Emiliano Boffelli. The Pumas were within four points and finishing like War Admiral at Churchill Downs.
Luckily another Highlander, halfback Aaron Smith, maintained steady continuity between forwards and backs. Errors happening in front of him and wider out meant possession became very precious, so just as well his quick delivery could still be relied on when the All Blacks did manage to keep the ball.
Panic never quite set in. It looked imminent when the Pumas were awarded an attacking lineout, in the final minute after a series of poor options and several failures to mark up on the blind, but Retallick bawled some furious instructions over the deafening crowd to shut a few mouths and get his team-mates’ minds back on the job.
They had one last task, keeping their nerve to stop a lineout catch-and-drive that was guaranteed to be well-practised, and they executed to a nicety. Refraining from sacking the jumper and lifters too early, the All Black pack waited just long enough for it to be deemed a maul by Angus Gardner’s highly ambiguous “Okay!” and were already set to tip the Argentines off balance with better body position.
The crowd hated it but the final whistle blew on a static pile of bodies five yards short of the New Zealand line.
The match’s hidden merit was in scarcity of clean breaks. The errors weren’t all forced but many came as a result of players pushing the envelope, their usual skills and deception not having been enough to break down the opposing walls of tacklers.
Pumas 16 All Blacks 20
It was a totally different affair in Johannesburg where the Wallabies were in town. Defences were all over the place and tries materialized out of thin air as the newest crop of Springboks repaid the faith of Rassie Erasmus.
Only three were actually debutantes but the other twenty had a couple of hundred tests’ less experience than the side which finished 2018. And they got the job done quite easily in the end, which is nice because it gives rugby fans in the Republic something to distract them as the state fails.
One of the debutantes, halfback Herschel Jantjies, scored two tries in a dream introduction to test rugby. But both were gifts. The Boks were assisted greatly by the Wallabies blowing chances and losing their cool. Fumbling within arms-length of the goal-line and shoulder-charging after the whistle, they hawked some tarnished wares in a foreign market and went home poorer than when they arrived.
Their build-up was hampered by injuries to front rowers, a commodity they’re already low on. Given a likelihood of less possession Michael Chieka compounded the problem by leaving two of the game’s calmest heads and greatest counter-attackers on the bench, halfback Will Genia and midfield playmaker Kurtley Beale.
What played out was easy for a neutral to enjoy, but with five times more line breaks than actual tries because there was more desperation in cover defence than an initial inflexibility at the gain line, and with almost as many high tackles as low ones.
Taniela Tupou, mugged outside his hotel the day before kick-off, decided to revenge himself on flanker Rynhardt Elstadt. Elstadt’s legs were pinned, the whistle had already blown and Tupou picked this exact moment to uncork a year’s worth of frustration, flattening him with a clearly pre-meditated and malicious shoulder.
Fifteen against fourteen the Springboks scored next play, pushed their lead into double figures and Australia never looked like recovering.
So all round it wasn’t a great week for the Wallabies, but it was worst of all for their Polynesians. Everyone knows it’s not a happy camp right now and has been for a while, long before it became illegal for Christians to criticize buggery, drugs and rock and roll.
South Africa has bigger problems.
Historically the Ellis Park crowd has always been noisy but the tone had marked variations. Alongside the unbridled joy in response to tries scored, there was a loud suspicious mutter questioning harsh calls, a heart on the sleeve approval or surprise at a captain’s decision, a chorus of outrage at foul play long before replays showed it in detail.
In short, it was one of the world’s most educated sporting audiences. High veldt tests were a total immersion in the high end appreciation of rugby’s subtleties. Now it’s just a raucous din coming from a mixture of the easily impressed and the long aggrieved.
It has only taken 27 years for communism to wreck what was once a proud nation, which is actually lowering communism’s average. But then anyone who could afford to leave has already gone, choosing to flee rather than stay and continue to resist the toxin.
The most entertaining rugby over the last fortnight has been played in a home and away series between Fiji and the Maori All Blacks.
If you’re looking to get a stale taste out of your mouth after those last two games, check out what the Fijians pulled off in Suva...
Fiji 27 All Blacks 10
...then appreciate the character shown by the Maoris in the return fixture at Rotorua.
Maori All Blacks 26 Fiji 17
The crowds at these games stood out for their enthusiasm and both were about as educated as you get in the granular detail of thirty-man fights. We have some big games this year at some very big venues and I hope equally appreciative audiences roll up to each one.