Phil Gifford: Five talking points from the All Blacks win and Rugby Championship double header


Rugby actually was the winner on the day

The Gold Coast double header was a triumph for the teams trying to play attacking rugby.

The Pumas tackled their passionate hearts out but were impressively beaten 39-0 by an All Blacks side that is showing new depths every time they play.

Then South Africa, whose style of play is a tedious, ugly blot on the international game, were sensationally upset 28-26 by the Wallabies.

If you thought the Springboks’ dreary series win over the equally boring Lions was bad, the South African game plan against Australia could have been written on a very small Post-It note.

It would have gone like this:

1. Kick and chase. Repeat 100 times.
2. Maul for a try from a lineout.
3. Never pass the ball along the backline.

For the future of the sport it would be a good thing for the current South African team to leave the Rugby Championship with four losses from four.

On the other hand…

The All Blacks got the workout they’ll need to face South Africa in a fortnight. Nepo Laulala announced the intensity that was missing in the hit-and-miss campaign in Australia last year with a legal, but smashing, tackle in the first minute of the Pumas test.

That level of commitment didn’t waver, and neither did the attempts to run in tries. But if they lack finesse on attack, the Pumas certainly don’t lack courage, and when the 30- minute mark was hit, with the All Blacks totally dominating but only ahead 7-0, it was possible that while the result was never in doubt, there might be 50 frustrating minutes ahead for the All Blacks.

But boldness did become their friend, and the try five minutes after half-time for Luke Jacobson was one for the history books.

Started with typical quick thinking by TJ Perenara, the final pass to Jacobson from Beauden Barrett was the jewel in the crown. From somewhere in his huge range of skills, Barrett, with just his right hand, fired the ball perfectly to Jacobson. It took imagination, daring and finesse, and was a perfect reminder that Barrett on song is one of the greats.

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If you watch nobody but Brodie Retallick for several minutes you see why he’s regarded so highly by the All Blacks coaching team.

His lineout play and running with the ball are, obviously, world class, but what astounds the most is how a man so big springs off the ground like an Olympic gymnast and gets back in the defensive line so quickly.

Any young player who wants an example of the commitment that makes an All Black should concentrate on Retallick and they’ll see the level to aim for.

Next, he'll bring peace to the Middle East?

Having savaged the selection of Quade Cooper in print and on air, it only seems fair to say I was completely wrong, and that he was the player of the game in Australia’s remarkable win over South Africa.

His goal kicking was extraordinary, nerveless and accurate. In general play he was error- free, and his front-on defence, which in the past has been a pretty obvious Achilles heel, was never put under pressure as the young Wallaby forwards refused to cower in the face of the biggest, meanest-looking mob of bullies in world rugby, the Springbok pack.

The masterstroke was that Cooper had by his side, in midfield partner Samu Kerevi, a flinty 108kg rock who offered the sort of muscular, fearless, physical presence that Little John did for Robin Hood. Coach Dave Rennie had worked out that a 33-year-old Cooperrunning at behemoths like Duane Vermeulen was a foolish option. So, short of being his conjoined twin, Kerevi couldn’t have stuck closer than he did to Cooper all game.

It was soon clear that Kerevi loved being the safety net for Cooper, who often unloaded passes to him that put Kerevi under huge pressure. Far from then regarding the ball as a hand grenade with the pin out, Kerevi relished the chance to show that while the Boks may be giants, many are also leaden-footed.

So game, set and match to Cooper and Rennie, and a grovelling apology from me for being so cynical about Cooper’s return.

Where do they go from here?

Given that on the couple of occasions the ball wasn’t booted by first-five Handrè Pollard the Springboks backs looked about as comfortable with the ball in hand as a new father stuck on a bus with a baby that needs changing. What South Africa do for the next Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane is a fascinating prospect.

They got so close to beating the Aussies with their one-dimensional game on the Gold Coast that it’s possible they’ll stick to the same dreary pattern.

But even if they win against Australia next weekend, will grunt-and-grind do the job against the All Blacks? It’s a sad fact that forward-heavy, 10-man rugby, often the norm in the amateur era for All Black sides too, can still, after all the changes to the laws, lead to scoreboard success.

Where it could go horribly wrong for South Africa is that, as the young Wallaby pack showed, if you’re not cowed by the Bok forwards you can create havoc with their plans. Add in the fact that the Australian back three, most notably fullback Tom Banks, handled the kicking bombs with aplomb, and that the All Blacks can field high-ball experts like Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan, and the South African coaching think-tank may get little sleep in the next two weeks.

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