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All Blacks and Springboks to decide title

The inescapable conclusion from the first weekend of the Rugby Championship is that, after a year of turmoil last year for one of the age-old protagonists, the All Blacks and Springboks are once again on collision course to decide the title.

Maybe, as the great Roy Orbison once sang, It’s Too Soon To Know, but I doubt it.

Having made the necessary moves to switch out an underqualified coaching staff for a very well qualified one, the Springboks have begun the year with four straight runs and are looking to be on an upward curve.

They might find Argentina a much tougher beast in Salta. History suggests they will, but this looks like a much better Springbok team than we were looking at a year ago, one well capable of dealing with whatever the Pumas hurl at them.

What impressed about their performance in the opener in Port Elizabeth was their set piece, their organisation and discipline on defence, and their patience on attack.

Their scrum was outstanding against a team renowned for this facet of play. While it is hard to fathom any game refereed by a Frenchman right now, they certainly earned a string of penalties, with Coenie Oosthuizen having one of his better tests.

This helped them gain a very good percentage of possession inside the Pumas half, but faced with a stubborn defence, had to work really hard to wear it down, which they eventually did. Jaco Kriel carried the most effectively, and Uzair Casssiem looked an interesting prospect…some rough edges to knock off, but a player who brings physicality, and an ability to create openings.

With a couple of exceptions they defended well, and it was impressive the way they kept their line intact, getting quickly back to their feet to reform, and giving away very few penalties under pressure. They don’t necessarily rush up in the offensive/defensive manner now so widely popular but it was very solid.

The only question marks are out wide, where for all his offensive ability, Raymond Rhule misses too many tackles, and Courtnal Skosan is also a bit suspect, areas that the All Black coaches would have noted.

But they were very good in the middle of the park, where Jan Serfontein has come back strongly this year and Jesse Kriel continues to look the player of class we first saw at the under-20 tournament in New Zealand. Kriel appears best suited to centre, and it will surely be in his best interests if he plays there all the time.

Everyone is expecting the Pumas to be better in Salta, but I’m not certain all is well with that team right now, a kick-on from their unconvincing performances in Super Rugby with the Jaguares. They are finding it hard to shake bad habits, habits ingrained in them by playing together so much, and there is little reason to suggest the Boks won’t make it two from two this weekend.

Likewise with the All Blacks against Australia.

The defending champions are undergoing a testing period and may not be the absolute force of recent times, but they are still a cut above most, and certainly look too good for Australia.

Their first test since the Lions tour in Sydney was a glass three-quarters full, one-quarter empty affair.

For 50 minutes they were running the Wallabies ragged and threatening to clock up a score in excess of 60, possibly 70 points. Some of it was quite brilliant.

The Wallabies have promoted Nathan Grey to fulltime defensive coach and he has brought with him the same flawed system that saw his Waratahs give up an average four tries and over 30 points per game in Super Rugby, a ratio the Wallabies have carried on despite three of their tests being against Fiji, Italy and a weakened Scotland.

One of the big factors is the conviction that certain players need to be hidden on defence, so you have Bernard Foley defending the wing, a wing defending centre, an outside centre defending inside and often a fullback defending in the line.

According to the official stats they missed 30 tackles, but the reality seemed to be a lot more than that, as high as 50 according to some sources. And the juxtaposition of their backline must make it hellishly difficult to transition defence into attack when the chance comes.

So the All Blacks had their way with them until the game was out of reach, and then suddenly buttoned off and allowed the Wallabies to score four late tries.

Steve Hansen put this largely down to the players being “seduced by the scoreboard”. They thought the game was in the bag and dropped their intensity.

However, it may also tell us something about an All Black bench that did not impact on the game in the way in which we have become used to.

I think this year we have probably felt the full knock down effect of the group of great players who stepped aside after the 2015 World Cup triumph. Throw in a couple of injuries and the inevitable departure of more players offshore, in this case Charlie Faumuina and Aaron Cruden, and you don’t have quite the same level of proven quality coming off the bench.

Two years out from the World Cup it’s not the worst time to be introducing some new blood, but it is going to impact on the team during this Championship, especially with Ben Smith going on leave after the next test, and Jerome Kaino facing an uncertain future.

Both Kaino and Aaron Smith were the subject of some fairly lurid allegations that arose with perfect timing in the Aussie media in the lead up to Sydney. Both were of a personal nature, and not necessarily indicative of some widespread malaise in the team, but they were unwanted distractions and not exactly a positive reflection.

The Smith “revelation” was really about pouring petrol on an old story, one that had been shopped around various media outlets until someone was prepared to “invest” in it, but no matter how embarrassing, it had no effect on Smith's performance.

Kaino had already been overlooked for test selection, and with Liam Squire playing so brilliantly, we may be seeing the change of a guard and the end of a storied career.

There was also a decision in the court case arising from last year's bugging of the All Blacks' hotel team room, a not-guilty decision that proved only that the All Blacks security consultant did not plant the bug, but left us with no clue as to who actually did. In other words a waste of time.

But those distractions really didn’t have any impact.

It’s often been said that great teams go in cycles, and there have been a few things happen over the last six months that have caused some, particularly the serial detractors of the northern hemisphere, to suggest this All Black era of dominance may be nearing an end..

To score 54 points in a test against a top five opponent is not a bad way to answer that, and it’s not like the team is exactly falling apart, but we will have a better idea oh which way they’re pointing come October, when they have played the Springboks a few times.

The scoreline should have been more clear cut. The Wallabies fourth try should not have stood, a ridiculous combination of a forward pass and an offside that was allowed in an act of pure sympathy, while soon after we had another case of a referee bottling out on a tough call when the TMO refused to award a try to Beauden Barrett, when replays showed he had, albeit fractionally, got to a loose ball in the in goal ahead of Bernard Foley.

So, much as they showed some spirit to fight back, the eventual 20-point deficit flattered the Wallabies, and I suspect they will again battle to keep the score within respectable bounds this coming weekend.

Finally, as I’m sure you are all aware, we have seen the passing of a rugby legend, with the death from cancer of Colin “Pine Tree’ Meads.

Meads was of an era when players sorted matters out among themselves, and he was pretty good at that, but his hard man reputation should not, and does not, overshadow his incredible quality as a player.

If I could ever watch two locks go at it again from any era, I would push aside the temptation to go for Victor Matfield against Sam Whitelock or Brodie Retallick and opt for Meads against Frik du Preez.

In a way, they were carved from the same block of granite, neither especially tall, particularly by today's standards, but both possessing explosive power and yet tremendous agility, and the ability to run like a stag with the ball clutched in one giant mitt.

I had the privilege of interviewing Frik a few years back in Pretoria, and his eyes fair twinkled when the subject matter turned to his battles with Meads. The respect between the two, and the other great lock of that era, Willie John McBride, was something to behold.

Meads was involved in his share of controversy, one of only three All Blacks to be sent off in a test, and he was persona non grata for a while after coaching the 1986 Cavaliers.

But he always made the time to talk to the people, never asked for money to speak at a rugby function, helped raise massive amounts of money for a children's charity and loved catching up with old adversaries as much as he did his old teammates.

Stories have abounded, but my favourite comes from the 2005 Lions tour.

A group of Welsh fans driving from New Plymouth to Auckland found themselves in Te Kuiti, in the rural heartland of King Country.

One of them realised they were in the home town of Colin Meads, and had no problem getting directions to his house from knowing locals.

Meads answered the door, and told them since they’d made the effort they’d better come in for a cup of tea and some scones. A day those Welshmen will treasure ‘til the end of their time, as we in rugby treasure the memory of one of the giants of the game.

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