1. Hate to say I told you so
Everyone agreed last week that Wales’ decision to play a midweek game against the Chiefs was rugby suicide, with two more tests to come against the All Blacks. The fact that injuries meant that front line players like Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Taulupe Faletau were all involved, only underlined the insanity.
And yet, at half-time of the second test at the weekend, Wales were drawing 10-10 with New Zealand. Were we all about to be served a large slice of humble pie?
Well, no. As expected, New Zealand kicked up a gear in a brutal 15 minute period in the second half, exploiting tired Welsh legs to rampage into an ultimately unassailable lead. Despite a valiant Welsh fightback in the last 10 minutes, the game was won in that period when Wales found themselves chasing shadows.
So why play that game against the Chiefs? Warren Gatland, of course, is a Waikato legend, so that likely had something to do with it. And I’m all for the amateur throwback that midweek games are, but if you’re going to play them, you need to be taking a much, much bigger squad. To have your test captain playing three games in a week is utter madness.
2. Old Zealand
Oh, to be a New Zealand rugby fan. When Dan Carter and Richie McCaw retired, not to mention Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the loss of so much experience was expected to have some sort of effect on their general play and results.
And while there have perhaps been some teething problems – their defence hasn’t been as watertight as they might have liked in the Wales series – in general the main tenets of All Black rugby have remained sturdy.
They are still insanely clinical, they still possess players from shirt number one to shirt number 23 that are comfortable with ball in hand, and they still back their ability to score from anywhere.
And they still have an embarrassment of riches. Beauden Barrett came off the bench to finally get an extended shot at the number 10 jersey at the weekend, and proved why he would walk into every other country’s team. Lima Sopoaga, architect of one of the most outrageous bits of skill I’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch (below), can’t even get in the squad.
Ardie Savea came off the bench to score a sublime solo score… you know what? We could sit here and do this for ages. The point is, the conveyor belt of talent in New Zealand is still functioning. Sigh.
3. Lies, damned lies and statistics
England’s win over Australia genuinely defied belief at times, and the stats prove it. They had 29% possession and 26% territory. They made 213 tackles to Australia’s 62. Australia made 224 passes to England’s 62. Clean breaks, defenders beaten, offloads… the list goes on. But in the one stat that actually matters, England walked away with a 16 point win.
In many ways – and bear with me here – it was reminiscent of the All Blacks. Ok, so New Zealand are never on the end of statistics quite so imbalanced, but they often end games with less territory and possession, but a healthy win on the scoreboard. They are masters of soaking up pressure and then striking when they have the opportunity.
England essentially had two try-scoring opportunities, and took them both. They rarely entered the Australian half but when they did, they usually came away with at least a penalty. That clinical nature and clarity of thought is something that was sorely lacking under the previous management. Allied with one of the greatest defensive displays probably ever seen, and you have a very solid foundation.
Now, this is not sustainable. You can’t make over three times as many tackles as your opponent and win every game of test rugby. But a series win on Australian soil is not to be sniffed at, and the belief that Eddie Jones has instilled in this team is a dangerous thing. When/if the attacking game is developed, England will be a very, very difficult team to beat indeed.
4. What’s the point?
Eyebrows were raised everywhere last week when Joe Schmidt announced the Ireland squad to take on South Africa in the second test. A week on from registering their first ever win on South African soil – and one win away from joining the Lions and All Blacks in one of the most exclusive clubs in rugby – there were to be a raft of changes.
Joe Schmidt was rotating his squad. Joe Schmidt, who doesn’t rotate against Italy in the Six Nations, was rotating his squad with a series win in South Africa within his grasp. Why?
One imagines that after a dire Six Nations, some people in the Irish hierarchy have been panicking about their depth. So this tour would have been targeted as a chance to give some younger, fresher faces some experience. And I’m genuinely not sure if they expected to win that first test.
But when they did, surely it might have been worth taking a pause. Building depth is a valuable exercise, but the consensus was that Ireland looked light on impact players on the bench for the second test. And so it proved. Having binned proven impact subs like Ultan Dillane and Sean Cronin, they were run ragged at altitude in the final 15 minutes, and with it their shot at a series win may have evaporated.
5. Raising your bat
Chris Robshaw went to 50 caps in some style, saving probably his best performance in an England shirt to bring up this milestone. For a man who was so pilloried post World Cup, it has been quite a transformation.
Freed of the burden of captaincy (which never seemed to sit well with him), he has been like a new player. Early on in both tests in Australia, he has snaffled ball at the breakdown with a proper “jackal”, something he was always accused of not doing enough.
Robshaw has always suffered for not really fitting the mould of either a six or a seven. The dreaded tag of “six and a half” has always followed him around, but instead of seeing that as a positive – he can be effective at the breakdown, but has the workrate and appetite of a six – it has all too often been used as a stick with which to beat him.
He is also one of the few genuinely skilful English forwards (which is where he and Haskell differ). His clearance kick at one stage at the weekend was a perfect example of this, and he has often been praised for his linking play with ball in hand. The point is, there is absolutely no reason why Robshaw shouldn’t be part of this England team long-term.
6. Hear the Lions roar
Allister Coetzee’s new Springbok era was in very real danger of starting with two losses in a row, to a team who had never beaten them on home soil before. Given the scrutiny and pressure that comes with being the coach of the South Africa rugby team, it would have been a precarious situation for Coetzee.
In the end, he was saved by his substitutes. Ruan Combrinck probably redefined the meaning of “impact sub”, scoring a try and tearing down his right wing every time he got the ball. Warren Whitely was another to transfer his Super Rugby form to the international arena, scoring a try and making 50 metres from eight carries.
Franco Mostert and Julian Redlinghuys helped shore up the set piece, too. What do all of these men have in common? They play for the Lions, South Africa’s form Super Rugby team this season. In fact, the Lions are the only South African side that has played any rugby this year, really. Earlier in the season, they beat the Chiefs (who just hammered Wales with their second team) 36-32 in Waikato.
The Springbok job will always come with pressures from the transformation targets that need to be hit, but equally, they need to be winning. Coetzee will surely be starting with some of these roaring Lions next weekend.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images