It was kind of fun watching the All Blacks stumble and stutter to a win against Samoa on Wednesday morning. They looked anything but superhuman, in fact, they looked very human, and very beatable.
But then a few sobering thoughts went through my mind:
The field they were playing on - Apia Park, at 94 metres long, 64m wide with tiny 5m in-goals, is a postage stamp, which suited the scrapping Samoans perfectly. Not so for All Blacks, who are masters at using the width of the field.
At home, in their first ever Test against the much revered All Blacks in their own country, with the prime minister part of a fanatical crowd, conditions suited the home side perfectly.
And perhaps most importantly, the All Blacks were sans players from 2 best Super Rugby sides of 2015, meaning they still have the likes of the Smith trio (Conrad, Aaron and Ben), Beauden Barrett, Lima Sopoaga, Malakai Fekitoa, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder to call on!
Luckily a piece by Mike Greenaway on the Vodacom Rugby Portal reminded me of a truism issued by then Bok coach Nick Mallett in 1998, a year not dissimilar to this, in that the Cats, Bulls and Stormers really did scrape the barrel in terms of Super 12 form, having won only 8 games between them.
Bullish, and prone to the glass being half full, Mallett had this to say: “So their Super Rugby teams are better than ours. But they can only put 15 of all those players on the field for a Test, from all that depth. I can assure you that the 15 Boks I pick from our horrible overall Super 12 challenge will be as good as theirs. It is 15 of their best against 15 of our best, not their Super 12 overall performance against what we did in the competition. We can beat them. I know we can.”
How right he was ... The Boks did not lose a game in the Tri Nations that year, and were crowned champions on the way to equalling the world record of consecutive Test wins (17) by a major Test playing nation.
So, can we surmise that Super Rugby form does not determine what happens at the next level, or was Mallett just one hell of a coach? Can Heyneke Meyer do the same?
Having seen Meyer’s first stab at our best 15, I suppose we can begin to comment.
It’s fantastic to see Warren Whiteley, Jesse Kriel and Vincent Koch getting a look in. Their Super Rugby form warrants it.
Not shy to give Meyer stick re: Coenie Oosthuizen being picked on the wrong side of the scrum, I completely hear reservations re playing players out of position. And while Kriel’s selection can be seen as a slap in the face for players like Juan de Jongh, S’bura Sithole, Harold Verster, Francois Venter, and even JJ Engelbrecht, it’s not as if he has never played there before. He played centre for the Baby Boks (SA’s appointed second side) last year! That Frans Ludeke played him at fullback for the Bulls, is not Meyer’s fault. He is a supremely gifted rugby player and deserves to be a Bok. But yes, let’s please beware the “utility back” curse!
Playing 2 fetchers and a linking No 8 is a long, long way from a loose trio that includes brutes like Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen. But they certainly now have the tools for an attacking breakdown, which has become the heart of the modern game. Employing a tweaked game plan that sees Bismarck du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, and, swoon, both centers, doing the carrying, we might just see a little bit more than one off runners off 9 and 10. How wonderful would that be?
There are some obvious concerns and red flags like the massive injury list, a reliance on ageing players, not knowing the fullback plan at lock and centre should current resources get injured, and the weird relationships with Jaque Fourie, Andries Bekker, Fans Steyn and Flip van der Merwe.
But as Mallett said, both teams can only pick 15 players. The World Cup is not going to be about Super Rugby form, it’s going to be about how the next two months are managed.
Tank is a former Western Province tighthead prop who now heads up Tankman Media, and sprouts forth on all things rugby on the Front Row Grunt.
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