Opinionista John Mitchell 22 August 2013

Five questions from Round One of the Rugby Championship

With the first weekend of the Rugby Championship under the belt, we take a look at five topics from the opening salvo of the tournament and what it means for the outcome of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier showcase. By JOHN MITCHELL.

Are the All Blacks on the wane, dragged down by an ageing line-up?

With a host of seasoned campaigners, the All Blacks side boasted one of the most experienced (read aged) line-ups in their impressive history. Captain Richie McCaw, 32, was on the comeback trail and taking the field in his 116th test, whilst earning the accolade of being the second-oldest All Black to don the number 7 jumper. And before Liam Messam pulled up limp in training during the week, McCaw and Kieran Read would have packed down in the oldest loose-forward trio since the amateur days of Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones and Mike Brewer back in 1995.

Add to the mix the seemingly indestructible but battle-weary Tony Woodcock and Andrew Hore, and one could be forgiven for raising the question of age, especially when lining up against a young and hungry for atonement Wallaby team. But those expecting a rusty and rickety warhorse were instead treated to a vintage display of a gleaming black Rolls Royce that glided to victory. McCaw was sublime in his return to international rugby, and other senior statesmen like Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Woodcock and Hore were infectious as they inspired the younger ABs with their collective on-field leadership, recording their 100th test win against Australia. One cannot say enough about the caliber, skill and ability of McCaw, who inspires superlatives every time he steps out in black. In a time where being the wrong side of 30 can be a swear word in international sports, these All Blacks showed more than enough gas in the tank to take on RWC15.

Dan who?

Dan Carter is one of the finest footballers to have graced the game of rugby. And when a player of such central importance and stature is confined to the sidelines ahead of a Bledisloe Cup match, it’s only natural to expect an element of dysfunction when he doesn’t start. Instead Aaron Cruden ran the battle lines like an experienced field marshall and combined impressively with Conrad Smith to control that inside channel. With that display, Cruden confirmed the seemingly bottomless depth of talent New Zealand has at flyhalf. Although that depth will be further tested this coming weekend, with 4th choice Colin Slade set to slot in at flyhalf with Cruden (knee) joining Carter (calf) and Beauden Barret (calf) on the physio’s table.

Does this loss put the British & Irish Lions tour into perspective?

The loss to the B&I Lions would have been heartbreaking for the Wallabies, in a series that could have gone either way with rub of the green of a few field penalties. But instead they were forced to deal with defeat and the appointment of a new coach, promising a new era of Wallaby rugby. Given the performances against the men in red, many were penciling in a second place for the Aussies, despite the change in management. But what we saw on Saturday would have taken some of the sparkle off the series win for the men from up north.

With an attack that drifted sideways instead of trying to penetrate the line and aimless kicking that only provided a counter-attacking platform for New Zealand. Ewen McKenzie has some selection posers ahead of Bledisloe 2, to go along with challenges in the team culture, experience and lack of physicality. Even the ever-reliable Will Genia was off his game on Saturday, which translated into extended pressure on Matt Tomua and could result in a start for controversial Quade Cooper. Expect a better performance from the Wallabies, but those locals still expecting a 2nd place finish are likely to be in for a surprise.

Is the Championship all but over with a New Zealand bonus-point away win?

Prior to kick-off, a maximum haul of points from an away game in Australia would have had the engravers sharpening their tools to etch in yet another New Zealand entry on the Rugby Championship trophy. But the Springboks delivered a rugby lesson to the Pumas at FNB Stadium that would have All Black supporters relishing the challenge of a hotly contested tournament.

After a conservative, workmanlike first 30 minutes they found their rhythm against the Pumas who lacked discipline, belief and conviction in their methods. South Africa was buoyed by yellow cards and they certainly took full advantage of those 20 minutes of being a man up.  The speedy backline with an exceptional back row, and handy tight five and a world-class replacement bench all made their impact in last 30 to 20 minutes. The question remains whether the team has turned a corner or is basking in the once-off of a plan coming together. We have yet to witness this team under serious pressure and the beauty of this competition is we’re guaranteed it will come.

I enjoyed their quicker ruck ball and willingness to keep it moving. Morne Steyn, 9 and 15 will definitely give away more possession and kick more ball away under pressure. That is a given and something the All Blacks and the Wallabies will look to thrive on in those instances where Steyn goes to the boot without forward momentum. I still believe it is the Springboks that have the one off in them to beat the All Blacks because they can create pressure like no other side in world rugby and are unstoppable when they are in that mood. Willie le Roux was joy to behold as he manipulated the Argie defence whilst creating many 2-on-1 situations for his teammates. Lets hope the Boks maintain this form going into the away leg of the tournament.

Are the Pumas as bad as the scoreline suggests?

After a passionate debut season with some agonisingly close losses, we were all expecting a stronger start from Argentina. Having had technical input from Graham Henry in the build up to the championship, no-one would have expected the hammering they got on Saturday.

They are team whose game is built around defence, and whose biggest successes have come from controlling tight games. Without their captain and arguably best player, Juan Fernandes-Lobbe, combined with a couple of yellow cards, they were always going to be courting disaster. However, Argentina will be a different prospect at home, and I am predicting they may get one victory on the side who drops their guard in performance, something which we’ve witnessed from each of NZ, AUS, and SA in the last 12 months. Thankfully this tournament is shaping up not be as one-sided as previously expected. DM


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