There was always going to be the faint whiff of anticlimax about the All Blacks beating the Springboks in Wellington this week, after the heady high of their crushing win in Auckland the previous week; what Richie McCaw’s men essentially delivered was Part II against a Boks side who look like they can’t wait to get out of Godzone.
With the southerly blowing sheets of rain in from the Strait, what I was hoping for was some smart wet weather rugby – keeping the ball tight in the forwards, playing low risk rugby with a focus on retaining possession and dominating the set piece, and grinding out the win through a war of attrition. But from my warm, dry vantage point at the southern end of the ground, it was possible to see clearly the width and confidence these AB’s are playing with, the sweeping lines of their attack, and the way they number up dutifully on defense. When after only a dozen minutes two of last week’s star performers Ma’a Nonu and Mils Muliaina had dotted down, punishing a Springbok defense that looked shabby in its organisation and execution, this was looking like another romp.
Admittedly, both these scores came while lock Danie Rossouw (Bakkies Botha’s replacement, clearly taking his role deathly seriously) was in the bin for a fairly innocuous looking nudge on McCaw, but it was really only that Dan Carter was having a decidedly off night with his goalkicking boot (his tactical kicking was, perversely, excellent) that kept the Boks remotely in the hunt. If last week was about the AB’s pulverising magnificence, this match made it impossible to ignore that the South Africans are woefully out of sorts, despite an improved showing on last week.
Evergreen captain John Smit looks like he may finally have hit the wall, seasoned jumper Victor Matfield won lineout ball but contributed precious little else, kicking drone Morne Steyn looks jittery and fragile, and proven past performers such as Schalk Burger, Jacques Fourie and much touted ‘World’s best number 8’ Pierre Spies suddenly look entirely one dimensional. By way of direct contrast, their All Blacks’ counterparts, the likes of Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn, Ma’a Nonu and the truly magnificent Kieran Read look rampant. Still, when Rossouw breached the AB’s line late in the first half, the tourists went into the stand just three points down at 13-10.
The nominal star of the show, however, was resurgent halfback Piri Weepu. Handed his first test start since 2008, a fit and trim looking Weepu bossed his forwards around the park, broke the Boks defensive line seemingly at will, kicked intelligently, and even stepped up to pot a long range penalty with Carter struggling – when he was replaced around the 60 minute mark by Jimmy Cowan, it looked like the boss telling him to knock off early, just reward for a job well done. In fact, Weepu’s inclusion could be just what the AB’s need in the run up to 2011 – it seems to me that the World Cup has always been won by a team with a good, smart halfback (Kirk, Farr-Jones, van der Westhuizen, Gregan, Dawson, du Preez), and whilst Cowan is tough as teak and an honest toiler, he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Plus, it is a good look for the guy who leads the haka to stay on the field for the kick off…
The evening’s other new starter, wing Rene Ranger’s effort was a bit of a mixed bag, with some sloppy handling largely atoned for by a superb one handed second half touchdown in the far left hand corner for a try which put the match out of the tourists’ grasp. On one level, a more interesting proposition was created when his replacement Israel Dagg joined the fray, giving us a back three entirely comprised of fullbacks – not a bad thing in the modern game, with its’ kick and catch requirements. But any concerns that this was a negative play were forgotten when Dagg glided through the Springbok defense to dot down in the same corner Ranger had earlier, adding a fourth try for what could be a very useful bonus point.
All that was left was for the Boks to claim a consolation try through Burger, but there was no taking away from the fact that the ABs had done what they came to do. At this rate, the Boks may struggle against the Wallabies in Brisbane, a place where they have not won in the professional era. Their big names are under-delivering; some of those who got a smooth ride through 2009 have finally been tested and found wanting; and they have not turned up any genuine new stars. If the Wallabies can hang in there during set phase, and play the game at pace through their excellent backs, the Boks could be looking down the barrel of three-zip from their 2010 Tri-Nations road trip.
– Jeremy Taylor