Makos beaten but by not means disgraced
No-one can accuse our Tasman Makos of being boring. They may have only managed five points from a possible 10 during their Marlborough double-header but didn't let their fans down and provided some thrilling entertainment.
Yesterday's loss to Northland may prove a setback to their ITM Cup championship campaign, but their supporters can't have been disappointed, having been treated to two highly-competitive matches within five days.
The short turnaround may have been a factor in yesterday's loss. After staging a stunning comeback early in the second spell to lead by seven the Makos finished the match at the wrong end of the field and, inevitably, the referee's whistle had the final say.
Northland last played on the previous Sunday and were well rested, while the home side's Wednesday/Sunday schedule represented a big ask. This is not an excuse, merely fact, and a by-product of the hugely-congested provincial schedule which all sides face at some stage. The Makos just didn't do enough with the ball they got their hands on against Northland, unable to convert several thrilling linebreaks into points, consequently leaving their opponents within striking distance.
The Southland encounter on Wednesday offered different fare. The Stags, whose idea of thrilling attack is a box kick, came north seeking their first win and very nearly managed it against a Makos outfit whose heart was willing but whose head and hands often let them down. The match will be remembered for two superb tries, both borne of invention and daring. The Makos got home, by the skin of their teeth, and deserved the points - if just for the two long-range tries.
Interestingly, some Marlborough folk suggested the match was a bit of a bore. Guess they'd be the ones who stayed home and watched it on TV.
Saturday's test in Dunedin confirmed two things for me. Richie McCaw is the greatest All Black to pull on the treasured jersey - and Morne Steyn's days in the Bok jumper are numbered.
Legends of the game such as Colin Meads and Sean Fitzpatrick have long been touted as this country's finest All Blacks. Without demeaning their efforts and skills, and being fully aware of the different eras in which they played, there is no doubt in my mind that McCaw has taken over the mantle. After reaching the pinnacle of modern-era rugby last year, it could be expected that the fearless skipper's form may have slumped, just a little, as he sought new challenges.
No chance. He's back, better, bolder and more dynamic than ever. I can't recall him playing so well in a multi-purpose role. He's not bagging the spectacular turnovers he managed in his youth, but his all-round game is vastly improved. In short, he's at the heart of everything the ABs do well. When they don't have the ball his menace is even greater.
Ferocious tackling, combined with relentless contesting of the breakdowns, make him the most feared defender in world rugby.
If possible, watch a replay of the weekend's test, concentrating just on McCaw. His involvement is staggering.
I was lucky, and old, enough to see many of Meads' and Fitzpatrick's tests, and they were certainly the best in their positions, but the bar has been raised. Interestingly, McCaw played his 110th test on Saturday night, exactly double the 55 tests Meads played. Sure, the modern game bears little resemblance to that of Meads' era, but the ferocity and intensity remains. Let's enjoy the sight of McCaw in his prime, he's somebody very special.
As for Steyn, for the All Blacks' sake I would be happy to see him stay put, but if the Boks' frenzied coach Heyneke Meyer puts down his walkie talkie long enough to talk some sense to himself, the No 10's days are done.
The metronomic first-five is well out of form, even his usually impeccable goalkicking astray. Meyer, his former coach at the Bulls, appears blinded by loyalty, despite his side's inability to find some sort of rhythm. This is one of the poorest Springbok backlines I have seen, with much of the blame being laid firmly at the feet of Steyn and halfback Ruan Pienaar.
With so much talent on show in the republic it beggars belief that changes haven't already been made. The backroom boys in the green blazers won't put up with this situation for long.
The Marlborough Express