No crisis going on here, unlike in Australia
OPINION: FIRST FIVE
1. Do not underestimate how important that win was for the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday night. Steve Hansen knows it, Richie McCaw knows it and if he's honest with himself Ewen McKenzie will admit to it as well. The Wallabies had a great chance to reset their psychological imbalance at the hands of the New Zealanders in their first test under a new coach, but instead suffered another Groundhog Day thumping. All week there had been a theme of positivity around the Wannabes, of a fresh start bringing new hope, of the culture having changed and of the personnel finally being the right fit. Fair enough. But when they suffer the same sort of defeat that earmarked their time under Robbie Deans it's hard to see how the All Blacks don't get straight back into the Wallabies' heads. Remember this was an All Blacks outfit rocked by the late withdrawals of Dan Carter and Liam Messam. Anyone notice? Two of the standout ABs just happened to be Aaron Cruden and Steven Luatua. With just five wins from their last 28 Bledisloes, the Wallabies head to Wellington with headspace as cluttered as the NZRU trophy cabinet.
2. Crisis. What crisis? It's a sign of how stable the All Blacks are under Hansen that the news that three first five-eighths were under injury clouds has induced little more than a raised eyebrow among the cognoscenti. Of course we've been here before, at the World Cup no less, when three No 10s went down en route to that final triumph over France. So magnificent was the story of Stephen "Beaver" Donald being plucked from the banks of the Waikato River to step up and kick the goal that won the Webb Ellis Cup, they've even made a movie of it. So when Cantabs Colin Slade and Tom Taylor are whistled up to cover for Dan Carter (calf), Aaron Cruden (knee) and Beauden Barrett (calf), forgive us if we're just a little underwhelmed. The way these All Blacks are operating you could probably put selector Grant Fox in there and they'd not skip a beat.
3. Before we get too carried away about the opening Rugby Championship statement made by the All Blacks, we should not forget the Springboks. Theirs was a very impressive display too in putting 70 past the Pumas in Soweto. The Bok forwards were magnificent as they steamrolled the usually respectable Argentineans, whose cause wasn't helped by two sinbinnings in their pack. But the sight of that South African eight getting their trademark rolling maul going indicates they're going to be a handful in Auckland (Sept 14) and Jo'burg (Oct 5), and there was enough spark in their backline as well, led by the reliable Jean de Villiers, to suggest something special yet awaits. It's interesting that Morne Steyn remains the flyhalf of this new era. It seems that, like Hansen, South African coach Heyneke Meyer understands that the mix of veteran experience with young talent is an important one.
4. Rugby's new scrum law hasn't made the most seamless of transitions. But it might be wise to temper criticism and suspend judgment until a little more water has flowed under the bridge. Former All Black turned analyst Justin Marshall was wailing in my ear about it, saying it's impossible for the hooker to hook the ball under the current process if the ball is fed dead straight. I don't doubt he's right. But as with all new laws there's a bedding in process required. Referees are always stricter initially to establish boundaries and teams require a period of adjustment. The intent is that the new law will make the scrum a less complicated beast. At the moment that has not been achieved, but it's too early to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sure the resemblance to rugby league's token set pieces is a little unnerving, and the mechanics might need a closer review, but I still like the intent. Scrums are a restart. But also an important part of the game - as the All Blacks showed in Sydney. Rugby is what it is because of scrums and lineouts, and at times like this we shouldn't forget that.
5. This is a big week for the Pumas as they chase redemption against the Springboks in Mendoza. They need to bounce back, and quickly, if they are to halt the chatter that they're roadkill in disguise this season. Sanzar has pinned a lot of faith in the Argentineans, and it goes beyond them being a competitive and vibrant part of the Rugby Championship. There's also talk that there could be as many as two teams from Argentina included in a revamped Super Rugby competition under the next broadcasting deal. Things didn't go their way in Soweto, and we all know how hard it can be to halt the Bok juggernaut when its confidence is up. But the Pumas need to show they're better than that now they're back on home soil. Their problem is they look like they might be a team between eras, and they face the difficult proposition of bringing a team together from mostly northern bases. It's a chicken and egg situation. They need home-based strength; but they must be part of Sanzar's top competitions to build it.
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