In Australia rugby union is fighting to stay relevant as a major sport. After the shambles we witnessed on the rugby pitch the past fortnight it would come as no surprise to me if chess, lawn bowls, bridge and under water hockey overtake Australian rugby as a major Aussie sport in terms of supporter numbers sooner rather than later.
The Wallabies started slowly against the Italians but seemed to have rid themselves of the most of their daemons as they got away to 21-6 at the half hour mark with three decent tries. Yet the home side couldn’t kick on and it was the Italians who kept them under pressure for the majority of the remainder of the contest. In the end the hosts needed two late tries to secure an unconvincing win.
For more than a decade the Aussies have been unable to find a few props who can handle themselves in the scrum. Again this was an area where they suffered. The Romans had a tighthead named Ferrari in their midst and boy did he leave his Volkswagen Mini-like opponents behind. The Wallaby props will be in need of a good panel beater after picking up some serious damage (physical and emotional) in this one!
Coming into the international series I was surprised to see the Aussies ranked number 3 in the world. After their last two outings I am even more convinced that clearly the ranking system is not exactly accurate. The struggles of the men from the convict colony this past weekend actually had me wondering what the outcome will be when this current batch of clueless kangaroo huggers have totravel up North later in the year.
I don’t know who they are scheduled to play on this trip but… Italy sans Parisse gave them a good fright in Brisbane. Were the Wallabies to travel to Rome the Aussies would surely have to fight tooth and nail to beat the spirited Azzurri. The Scots flicked the men from down under something from down under their kilt by beating them in their own backyard and as such a full strength Scotland would be favourites in my book to beat Cheika’s bumbling buffoons in Highlander country. France can blow hot and cold but the French pack would have their way with Steven Moore and his lightweight tight five on home soil. The Welsh play with plenty of passion in front of their fans and with Australia devoid of any heart and imagination in their game at present I don’t see them winning this one either. The English and Irish with a great balance between strong, dominant forwards and slick, dangerous backs will comfortably have the measure of the Wallabies in all aspects of the game at the minute.
On the South African front the Boks were less impressive than last week but finished strong to pick up another comfortable victory. It was a disjointed effort from both sides on the day and certainly not a spectacle to remember. For mind the French were particularly poor. Having come up empty handed from their opening two encounters one would have expected a bit more of a laissez-faire approach from Les Blues especially after finding little leeway from the SA defensive system last time out. But instead of playing a more expansive game with the renowned French flair it was a mechanical, stuttering show from the Frenchies at Ellis Park. The home side defended well and took a few good opportunities in the second half to seal the 3-0 series whitewash.
This Springbok side is by no means the complete package just yet but it is long removed from the struggling team without identity or purpose we witnessed 12 months ago. Yes they are still far from capable of even running the All Blacks close but looking at the current level of the other Southern Hemisphere sides the South Africans are probably on current form a respectable fourth best behind the Kiwi’s, England and Ireland. Not a terrible place to be right now.
Encouragingly for the Springboks and their fans the running game of the Lions seems to have started to rub off on the Boks (of course it does help Toetie and his other coaches that half the SA team have been drilled in attacking play by Ackermann and Swys de Bruyn). Men like Ross Cronje, Franco Mostert and Malcolm Marx have looked at home at test level despite their inexperience whilst there have also been successful returns for Elton Jantjies and Jan Serfontein. Defensively the work of Brendon Venter seems to be bearing fruit but most importantly of all it appears that the team culture is starting to take shape and this bodes well for the Boks going forward.
And then there was the small case of the British and Irish Lions taking on the mighty All Blacks. Thirty minutes into the contest it appeared the hype built up around the BIL’s after their victories over the New Zealand Maori’s and the Chiefs had been grossly exaggerated. The Kiwis had warded off the early challenge from the men from across the pond and had settled into a comfortable 13-3 lead. A moment of magic on the counter attack would however bring the contest alive. It is usually the All Blacks who capitalise on this type of opportunity but in this case it was Lions’ fullback, Liam Williams, who ran the kicked ball back out of danger and turned a defensive situation into one of opportunity as he broke clear to set up a brilliant score.
The BIL’s found some much needed momentum from this try and for the first dozen or so minutes after the break they had their much vaunted hosts on the back foot as they launched the one siege after the other. The New Zealanders are a world champion side though and they proved this as they absorbed the pressure and dodged a few bullets thanks to a combination of determined last-ditch defence and a few slip ups from their opponents at critical times whilst hot on attack. In the end it was a dominant scrum effort which set the Blacks up for the win as a powerful shove had the Lions backpedalling before slick handling from Read and a few of the backs put Ioane away for the match winning try. After this the men in black were never going to be stopped.
What I took form this game was yet another reminder that regardless of how impressive the skills, imagination and foresight of Kiwi players are on attack one must not forget their brilliant attitude, cohesion and discipline in defence. Often they clinch games from turnovers created from their supreme defensive efforts and we end up raving about a fancy flick pass leading to the score instead of appreciating the big hit or ruck turnover which actually created the opportunity. Also (as the South African Lions have proven as well the last two seasons) you can have the most skilled outside backs – ask the Maori’s – but the age old rugby sentiment of winning the battle up front still rings true. There is a reason why the numbering of a rugby team starts with the props and not the backs (and no it does not have to do with the notion that the tight five can’t count to double figures!).
I look forward to enjoying the last two tests from the comfort of my couch as the first one was brilliant to watch. It will take a lot of heart and character from the BIL’s to dust themselves off and go again but I look forward to seeing what they have to offer in the coming weeks.
If you are a Kiwi supporter be proud, a South African be optimistic, a Brit be hopeful and an Aussie - be ashamed!
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