Farewell to the ‘Brook…
The start of the test rugby season in the run up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup kicked off in earnest this weekend with the start of a Tri-Nations that it is going to be very difficult to glean any idea of actual form from.
With the naming of an All Blacks squad that had precious little by way of surprises, (other than the back up 10 coin toss going the way of the decidedly underdone Colin Slade, rather than the dramatically undersized Aaron Cruden, and rookie lock Jarrad Hoeata replacing the injured Anthony Boric), the Springboks naming a touring side missing 21 frontline players (injuries, my arse), and a Wallabies B-side famously losing to Samoa, this weekend saw the AB’s play what was really a glorified training run against Fiji in Dunedin, and the Tri-Nations kick off in Sydney with Dingo’s under-the-pump Wallabies taking on P de V’s Bok B’s.
Opting to rest most of the Crusaders and Blues players, Henry and his fellow selectors named a side that featured a run on debut for Slade and first test for Hoeata, along with narrow windows of opportunity for some players to stake a claim for World Cup squad spots (Wyatt Crockett, Liam Messam, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Ben Smith), and for others to find form and get some much needed game time (Conrad Smith, Andrew Hore, Richie McCaw).
They found themselves matched up against a Fiji side devoid of a couple of its militarily-affiliated players, and largely without their first stringers. They also found themselves at the mercy of godawful Australian referee Stu Dickinson, a man whose fatwah against Richie McCaw and inability to adjudicate correctly at the scrum and breakdown leave me profoundly relieved that he has missed out of a refereeing appointment at RWC 2011.
A slow and steady start saw Slade nail a nerve-settling penalty, and the floodgates opening with Sivivatu, one of the evening’s star performers, going over in the left hand corner. Subsequent touchdowns to Slade, Hore and Thomson saw the AB’s go into the stands 32 nil at the break, looking for all the world like they would post a cricket score in the second half.
Which they did, eventually, sort of. It’s tough when you field a largely second string side in the first international game of the year and still rack up 60 points, but concede a couple of tries, and the whole of the rugby watching nation is only too happy to decide you’re not going to win the World Cup. If you look at this game for what it was, you would have to say that several boxes were ticked – Slade looked composed and not overawed seatwarming for global superstar and ‘rugby genius’ Dan Carter; Hoeata looked aggressive, industrious and pretty much a dead ringer for departing oldie Brad Thorn; Piri Weepu recovering nicely, getting fitter, and providing his customary tactical nous and tempo lift upon his introduction off the bench in creating a try for fellow Hurricane Conrad Smith; and out of the whole team, you would really only say that Messam and returning lock Ali Williams were significantly off the pace.
Whilst it is difficult to glean too much of a tactical nature from what was basically an opposed training run against fairly limited opposition, the AB’s seemed to be playing a variation on the game plan debuted on the Grand Slam tour last year – three quarters running into channels close to the ruck, and loose forwards carrying the ball in midfield, looking to punch holes in defenses that will get a whole lot tougher than the Fijians. To this end, I really do wonder if the squad is short of the out and out speedsters favoured by Australia and South Africa , and that the All Blacks may have been better served by a lightning quick finisher such as the Crusaders Sean Maitland rather than his teammate Zac Guildford, or steady types like Cory Jane or Ben Smith. I even wonder how effective the likes of Sivivatu or Hosea Gear will be against quality opposition – with defensive structures so solid, perhaps it is more effective to try to go round them than through them.
Similarly, it is tough to know what to make of the Wallabies putting a seriously depleted Boks side to the sword 39-20 in Sydney . They looked instantly, immeasurably better with his first choice, Reds inside back pairing of Will Genia and Quade Cooper restored, and Deans has also figured out that he need a straightening, ball carrying second five like Warratah Pat McCabe rather than another playmaker (like the decidedly out of favour Matt Giteau) at 12.
Defensively, the Wallabies have to do quite a bit of juggling to cover the fact that the ‘mercurial’ Cooper seems to be allergic to tackling. I actually can’t help but feel that Cooper is hugely, hugely overrated – he was poor under pressure in the Super 15 final against the Crusaders, and I think the All Blacks may seek to target him, rattle his confidence, get under his skin. It is Genia who scares me most – he reads a game so well, is an excellent kicker, passes well of both hands, and is deceptively quick. He is a genuine firebrand, and will be giving the All Black coaches sleepless night trying to limit his effectiveness. He was superb against the Boks.
But lets not give the Wallabies too much credit. Make no mistake – this was a simply dreadful Springboks team. Devoid of a whole squadron of top line players, they struggled with almost every facet of the game. Only captain John Smit and first five Morne Steyn really stand any chance of being in the top fifteen, and on the strength of this game, you’d even have to wonder about that. This was a Springboks pack getting pushed off the ball by the powder puff Wallabies forwards. This was a side who didn’t give a shit; a team of, to paraphrase, “biltong eating surrender monkeys”, and I would expect the All Blacks to dish up a similar sized heapin’ helpin’ o’ hurtin’ on them this weekend at the Cake Tin.