Yesterday – with the family away for the bulk of the day – I managed to settle in and watch three rugby matches live on television and still have time to prepare the evening meal in time to watch the opening stanza of Strictly Come Dancing which my youngest daughter insists is mandatory viewing now it has returned on Saturday nights.
Firstly, from 8.30am on Sky Sports I watched the New Zealand host South Africa in Wellington and then Australia host Argentina at the Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast in the next round of the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship.
All three matches were full-blooded, harum-scarum, topsy-turvy, affairs with plenty of points and tries being notched. The impartial observer could not fail to have enjoy the entertainment on display.
Furthermore, all three contests could have gone either way at the final knockings, albeit Quins’ late surge towards their two-bonus point loss – one for scoring four tries, the other for ending 7 points or less than the score notched by their conquerors – left the final score of their game (32-37) conveying a distinctly false impression of the gulf in approach and performance between the two teams.
As we often suggest on the Rust, those rugby fans and others interested in detailed blow by blow accounts of proceedings should consult the sports pages of their favourite Sunday papers or even those of the excellent weekly The Rugby Paper which is also published today.
My purpose in posting is to record some impressions of these matches and add some comments upon the current state of World Rugby.
Fair play to South Africa, who previously had not beaten the All Blacks on Kiwi soil for nine years, and Argentina who had not prevailed over the Wallabies in Australia in thirty-five.
Their triumphs were both well deserved.
The omens for South Africa were not good as the All Blacks began at pace and smoothed into a 12-0 lead inside the first twenty minutes, although by this time one of their chief weaknesses on the night – the place kicking of talismanic two-time World Player of The Year fly half Beauden Barrett – had made itself apparent.
Statistically, given the 34-36 final score, his success rate of about 40% with his kicks at goal instead of his normal double that could be argued to have been the difference between the two sides.
However, that would be unfair to the underdog Springboks.
Twelve minutes later they had scored three tries by pouncing on a series of unusual All Black errors inside their own half – taking them to a 21-12 lead that they never surrendered.
Their pack had phases of ascendency in the tight and at the line-out and their all-round defence was sensationally good, as indeed it had to be, especially during the last fifteen minutes as the All Blacks continually racked up the intensity in a desperate attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Praise again to the Pumas, who had gone to the Gold Coast determined to play attacking rugby and take the Wallabies on – there were several cases of ‘afters’ and/or handbags’ during their game and certainly no quarter given by either side.
Both victorious teams were the better on the night.
Kieran Read, the All Blacks captain, gave a Kiwi-typical magnanimous interview on the pitch after the match in Wellington, praising the ‘Boks for their outstanding effort and defence.
Back in the London sunshine, there was similar intent to play full-on positive rugby but the visitors – currently suffering from poor early results and a bit of a crisis of confidence – simply had too much firepower for Quins whose woes of last season continue despite all the brave words about a new atmosphere and the transforming influence of new head coach Paul Gustard, formerly part of Eddie Jones’ England coaching team.
Already on England’s radar, the former London Irish player was fast, broke through tackles, bowled people out of the way even and was no slouch at jinking.
But he also showed great athleticism in scoring a sensational try in the corner, somehow evading a scything tackle whilst in mid-air diving for the corner and reaching out to touch the ball down by the narrowest of margins, one that this viewer would not have believed possible had she not seen the HD video evidence replayed over and over again to prove it.
Rugby Union around the world has taken a step up in intensity in the past nine months. Gone are the days of defence, defence, defence and deliberately giving the ball to the opposition in order to disrupt and pressurise them into mistakes.
Attack, verve, fitness, dynamism are now the order of the day. It’s entertaining and the collisions, tackles and wrestling matches all over the park are wincingly physical. A lot to admire in that.
But a word of warning with the autumn internationals looming on the horizon.
They say that international rugby is a 10%-20% hike upwards in intensity above top national club rugby.
On the evidence of yesterday’s Rugby Championship games, I’d suggest that Southern Hemisphere international teams are another 10% minimum bigger, stronger, fitter and better than that.
From that perspective I cannot contemplate England’s coming contest with New Zealand on 10th November with anything but nervousness.
[Derek Williams is not unwell but is still considering whether he wishes to post about the fortunes of Harlequins this season.]