Anyone who watched the South Africa versus New Zealand match in the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship at Ellis Park (kick-off 4.05pm UK time) on Sky Sports yesterday, eventually won 20-27 by the All Blacks, would have marvelled at the spectacle. This was a full-bloodied Test Match of brutal intensity, containing much scintillating all-action play by a heady mix of seasoned internationals and rising young stars, giving a foretaste of what we can expect to witness at the Rugby World Cup in a couple of months’ time.
Let me declare an interest. I’m highly respectful of All Black rugby and yet also wary of accepting the all-pervading rugby culture of New Zealand at its own estimation. Whilst I enjoy the haka for all its theatrical qualities, for me it doesn’t quite sit right in the context of world rugby because it implies an unfair advantage of perceived superiority/invincibility. Can you imagine any other global sport in which such a ritual would be permitted in addition to the performing of the national anthems before an international game? Arguably it epitomises a ‘pulling up the ladder after you’re half way up the rungs’ of the Old World rugby nations, somewhat akin to the continual efforts of America, Russia and the West to deny the proliferation of nuclear weapons to anyone but those they approve of.
Despite being widely acknowledged as perhaps the greatest rugby nation of all, the fact is that New Zealand has only lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy twice, i.e. on the two occasions that the Land of the Long White Cloud – at considerable commercial cost to the Rugby World Cup organisers in terms of revenue, mind – has been awarded the ‘hosting nation’ rights (1987 and 2011). Nobody could or would deny that the All Blacks are the greatest marketing brand as regards the Holy Grail of developing of rugby around the globe, in which context it would perhaps be churlish of me to point out that they only won the 2011 RWC Final against France (by the ‘squeaky bum’ margin of 8-7) courtesy of some decidedly uneven – one might even suggest one-sided – refereeing by the South African referee Craig Joubert that allowed New Zealand all sorts of latitude at the breakdowns and rucks (blatantly apparent off-sides and/or side entries repeatedly ignored) and their opponents none at all.
There is a well-documented history of potentially world class talent from the Pacific Islands being ‘encouraged’ to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand in order to advance their rugby careers. Once there, of course, especially if genetics has anything to do with it, their descendants are automatic naturalised Aussies and Kiwis anyway. This sort of thing has been going on for decades.
Much fanfare was broadly recently when the All Blacks played their first-ever and long-overdue Test Match against the home nation in Samoa, one of the minnows – in commercial revenue terms only – of world rugby, whose best players this year have found themselves wrestling with the dilemma of whether to play for their country in the 2015 RWC at the (overt or implied) risk of losing their regular livelihoods in European club leagues and competitions. Many of such individuals, for totally understandable family and financial security reasons, have regretfully opted to stick with the latter.
However, all snide carping aside, yesterday’s Ellis Park clash was a terrific game of rugby. As a European rugby fan, there was a degree to which I felt I was but a privileged third party onlooker being allowed to spy upon an elite Southern Hemisphere party event. As the countdown to the national anthems and then the game began, lead South African commentator (and former Springbok captain) Bobby Skinstad reviewed the vivid history of the fixture down the years and one could not fail to gain the impression that, for everybody present in person – be they player, coach, administrator or spectator – Europe, both as a continent and rugby quarter, was not only a world away but totally irrelevant.
In my Euro-centric ignorance, I was watching for the first time some rising players that I had heard of by name but never seen – and indeed some players I had never come across before at all.
For South Africa, who dominated both possession and territory for large sections of the action, the starting centres – 21 year-old Jesse Kriel (6 feet 1 and 15 stone) and 23 year-old Damian de Allende (6 feet 2 and 16 stone) – were mightily impressive.
Both were direct, hard-running and dynamic. Kriel was electrically-fast and de Allende, a bulldozer of a man, appeared to bump off and/or clatter opponents at will, making big dents every time he got the ball.
Steve Hanson, the All Blacks coach – having lost Aaron Cruden as a fly half due to a knee injury and not content with fellow 10s Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade in his RWC ‘large squad’ – gave a debut to 24 year-old Lima Sopoaga, a neat little operator who played to the manor born.
Elsewhere, the vets were much in evidence. Schalk Burger, now 32 and back from a bout of near-fatal bacterial meningitis in 2013, played a blinder. For New Zealand, 34 year-old Richie McCaw (playing his 140th Test match), Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu (both 33 and counting) were all prominent.
But that’s the thing about Southern Hemisphere rugby. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough … or indeed young enough. There’s no ‘let’s wait until we’re absolutely convinced they’re ready’ in the coaches’ mind-sets – the kids with potential get thrown straight in.
Equally, there’s no sentiment involved. If say McCaw or Dan Carter (himself also now 33) are no longer up to it, not only would Steve Hanson tell them, he’d drop them immediately – and they’d be the first to accept the decision as correct.
The reaction of the teams at the end of yesterday’s thrilling encounter was telling and heart-warming for any sports fan. The All Blacks had squeaked home in the final minutes, the Springboks must have been badly disappointed, and yet – at the final whistle – both sets of players lined up and shook hands, laughing and patting each other on the back like old comrades. In his on-pitch interview Burger, the South African captain, praised the All Blacks, admitted that his team had done plenty right but also had many things still to work upon, said it was one of the greatest games he’d ever played in and then smiled and waved to all.
McCaw was similarly self-effacing and magnanimous when it was his turn to speak.
Who knows which teams will contest the 2015 RWC Final?
What I can say, on this evidence, is that the Southern Hemisphere giants of the game are going to be turning up in September ready for anything and full of intent.