Boks Club Baby Blacks; Eat Bones
South Africa sent a largely back-up team to Wellington under a vastly experienced hooker three weeks ago, and New Zealand returned the compliment yesterday. Kevin Mealamu captained a half-strength side missing a wealth of stars: Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn and Mils Muliaina, the established spine of the side, were all left cooling their heels back in New Zealand. It’s a cliche in rugby circles that there is no such thing as a bad All Blacks side, and though any team would miss players of the calibre of those listed above, Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Ali Williams and Jerome Kaino, all front-rank forwards, were present and correct.
That they were put squarely on the backfoot is a tribute to a brutal and abrasive outing from the Springbok pack. Pieter de Villiers still has dozens of question marks hanging over him – and a fair few of his lightbulbs of inspiration can be read as question marks to boot – but bringing in Bismarck du Plessis at hooker to replace the legendary John Smit is a step in the right direction. Smit has shown that he is still well capable of playing rugby at the highest level, but Bismarck is without doubt the best hooker in world rugby at the moment, magnificent in the loose, ferocious in the tight and well-drilled in the set-pieces. Victor Matfield took over as captain in Smit’s absence, and the Boks didn’t seem to lose much from the handover.
Fee Fi Fo Fum – I Have a Pack of Giants to Choose From …
In Matfield and Bakkies Botha, South Africa have the best second-row partnership of the professional [and perhaps any] era of rugby, and both were in good form yesterday. Bakkies was up to his usual tricks, leveling runners, smashing static rucks and generally acting the ogre while Matfield had one of his best games of the season, imperious in the lineout and in receiving kickoffs, handling and passing in the backline like a second No8.
When you consider that de Villiers also has the ability to replace last year’s Springbok of the Year, Guthro Steenkamp, with Tendai Mtawarira, the strength in depth of the Bok pack really becomes apparent. Even without the injured Juan Smith and Andries Bekker, the Boks can call on Danie Russouw and Willem Alberts; Heinrich Brussouw is fast coming back to the form that made him such a thorn in the Lions side in 2009, and Schulk Burger is waiting in the wings.
… And The Backs Are Pretty Good Too
Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn were reunited at halfback, and the understatedly excellent scrum-half made his Blue Bulls partner look like an international outhalf again after a disastrous outing at fullback in the corresponding fixture three weeks ago.
Jean de Villiers and Fourie du Preez are a proven centre combination, and while the try-hungry Fourie didn’t have his best game, de Villiers showed some clever feet in tight spaces and invention in creating space and using the ball. Both men are physically very big and did a reasonable job in editing the highlight reel of Superstar Sunny-Bull Wull’yums, although the sometime pugilist did show that he can be effective outside somebody else other than Dan Carter.
Over the course of their four matches in the Tri-Nations, the Boks have picked four different fullbacks: Gio Aplon started in Sydney, Morne Steyn in Wellington, Francois Steyn in Durban and Patrick Lambie in Port Elizabeth. On the strength of his physicality and howitzer boot, Francois should be in pole position for the world cup, but he struggles to put his ego aside and play team game. Fullback is the most isolated position on the pitch, so it may just suit him.
Now I’m no fan of George Clancy …
… but he did call the Kiwis on forward passes on a number of occasions, passes which too often get unfairly let go. In the laws of rugby [Law 12, if you want to look it up on the IRB’s website], a forward pass – or knock-on, for that matter – is defined as the ball travelling “towards the opposing team’s dead-ball line”.
There’s a fair bit of guff spoken by people who should know better about passes “backwards out of a player’s hand but forward in the air”, which is just that: guff. Forward is forward [and no means no, all you feminists out there!]
Colin Slade in particular gave one very lazy forward pass under little pressure which was rightly called back, and while he by no means had a shocker, it’s readily apparent that a New Zealand team shorn of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, two genuine greats of the game, just aren’t the unstoppable force that they look like when both are in situ. Adam Thomson was pinged off the park by Clancy, and played out of the stadium by Heinrich Brussouw; he doesn’t have many wiles as regards openside play, and is clearly more at home on the blindside of the scrum.
In contrast, Tony Woodcock had a good outing in his first match back in black. The Kiwis are well served at prop by the Franks brothers and John Afoa, but Woodcock has been a really top class performer for a good number of years, and Henry, Smith and Hansen will be delighted that the big lump is available for selection after serious injury concerns.
Outside backs Toeava, Dagg, Hosea Gear and replacement Cory Jane are all pushing for contention in Henry’s final squad, and made cases for themselves with fine open field running. New Zealand have phenomenal depth in the back three – Joe Rokocoko, Rene Ranger and Leila Masaga didn’t even make the preparatory squad – and with the likes of the ageless Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu not in the weekend’s squad, it’s an area where depth is not an issue. You’d imagine that Muliaina is a definite at fullback, but there’s a lot to play for at wing.
Depth isn’t an issue at centre either. Richard Kahui bagged a fine try, and if his outings in the black jersey have been limited by injury and the presence of Conrad ‘Snake’ Smith, he’s a talented, hard-hitting and clever player to have as back-up.
Not Invincible … We’re Only People … We’re Only Human
You get the feeling though that New Zealand – like any other team – have players that they just can’t replace. To McCaw and Carter, I’d add Kieran Read. Liam Messam is a striking ball carrier, but Read does so much around the pitch, and has had two such impressive back-to-back seasons that he is right up at the top of the tree competing with Sergio Parisse as the best No8 in the world, if that is where such competitions take place, i.e. on treetops, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
In comparison to the likes of Will Genia, Fourie du Preez and both Morgan Parra and Dmitri Yachvilli, the Kiwis aren’t particularly well served by Jimmy Cowan, Andy Ellis or Piri Weepu at scrum-half. Don’t get me wrong, none of them are poor players, but New Zealand have been lacking a top quality scrum-half since the international retirement of Justin Marshall. Byron Kelleher was obviously a tremendous athlete and a good scrum-half to boot, but the lad was an absolute headcase – off the pitch and on it.
Weepu would be my pick of the bunch, but has so many problems with fitness and attitude hanging over him. Using him as an outhalf is a neat wrinkle, but is that who you really want coming off the bench if Carter gets injured in a knock-out match? Answers on a postcard to Graham Henry.