Unfortunately, the first month of summer caught us slightly by surprise here at the Lineout, and what with all the rugby to watch, school finishing and various work commitments we regrettably didn’t get to cover the momentous events taking place in International Test Rugby in June in as much detail as we would have liked. We regret that Scotland’s efforts in Japan this month have not been covered as we simply didn’t get to see these matches in Canada. Following on from our last instalment, we wrap up the month of June, by taking a quick look at Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and Wales.
Ireland made some history in June, but fell agonisingly short of getting the ultimate prize of a first ever Series win against South Africa. Although they beat the Springboks for the first time ever on South African soil, and with only fourteen men to boot, they were unable to carry the momentum of that epic opening win and clinch the series despite giving the Springboks the scare of their lives for the remaining two Tests. The second Test looked like it was going to go Ireland’s way and the history books were about to be rewritten, however, South rebounded in the second half in one of the most remarkable comebacks I’ve ever seen and shattered Irish dreams of glory. In the final epic showdown in Port Elizabeth a rejuvenated Springbok side took the game by the throat and despite an enthralling last charge by the Irish with everything they had in the final ten minutes, South Africa would emerge the victors.
Ireland however can take enormous heart from the lessons learnt on this tour, and the experience gained by some promising new talent. Furthermore, the Irish had essentially been written off for this Series at the end of an exceptionally long season and without some of their key players. However, they came, competed and ran South Africa close for 240 minutes of enthralling rugby. To win one test, with a man short and then only lose by a six-point margin in the next two is no small achievement. The old guard such as Rory Best, Devin Toner, Jack McGrath, Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip produced some of their best performances of the year while the new crew of backs Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall really stood up to the challenge. In short, Ireland has a much clearer picture of the future after this tour and it certainly looks promising.
There is no question that depth is not an issue in Ireland, and there is enough promising talent coming through the ranks to continue to make Ireland competitive for many years to come, coupled with the fact that the new season come the fall should see the return from injury of key players such as Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien. The big question mark and elephant in the room when it comes to Irish rugby is how much longer they will have the services of New Zealand Coach Joe Schmidt. As good as Ireland’s player base is, there is no doubt that without Schmidt’s tactical know how and rugby brain Ireland would not have been as successful as they have been since he took charge in 2013. Already on the radar of New Zealand Super Rugby franchises and seen as a possible successor to current All Black Coach Steve Hansen after the 2019 World Cup, Ireland will be sorely pressed to keep Schmidt’s services once his current contract expires in 2017. It is hoped that Schmidt will be able to give Ireland the answer they need before the new season starts in September in order to determine whether or not they will be preparing for Japan 2019 with or without him. If it is without him then there should be enough time to integrate his successor into the planning and preparation in sufficient time as well as get some much needed mentoring from Schmidt before he proceeds to his next assignment. An agonising month for Irish supporters lies ahead and we hope that whatever the outcome they continue to build on the momentum they have built up over the last four years.
Italy’s new lease of life under the successor to the much maligned tenure of Coach Jacques Brunel, Irishman Conor O’Shea got off to a bright start in June. In three demanding Tests they held their own against Argentina despite being on the losing side, while clearly getting the edge over the Americans and Canadians with two encouraging wins where their discipline and basic execution were that much more clinical than the North American sides. Furthermore, plenty of new blood was given a crack at Test level rugby and for the most part made a positive impression. Meanwhile the future of Italian rugby looks bright as fly halves Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna bring a solid kicking game to the Azurri and a sound link between a bruising forward pack and some promising backs. Centre Michele Campagnaro continued to light up every pitch he ran onto and is an exceptionally exciting player for Italy.
Italy are very much a work in progress but with some promising developments taking place in the national management setup and some solid experience and talent being brought into the coaching department, Italy looks set to go from strength to strength in the buildup to Japan in 2019. From what we have seen in their new players and the coaching direction they are getting, it is unlikely that Italy’s consistent lack of results on the big stage are going to continue and certainly at the Six Nations level they should be a much more competitive force. We’ll know much more come the November Tests against South Africa and New Zealand which although enormous mountains to climb for this new look squad, there still should be grounds for some cautious optimism once more amongst Italian supporters.
There is only one question on everyone’s lips regarding New Zealand – how on earth do you beat these guys? It is going to be an exceptionally talented and gifted team who pulls it off and based on current form we don’t see it happening any time soon, and probably not this year. Many thought that New Zealand’s utter dominance of International Rugby was likely to come to an end once the euphoria of the World Cup triumph last year wore off. A raft of legends for the All Blacks hung up their boots at the end of last year, most notably Dan Carter and Richie McCaw two of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Add to this mix players like Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith also calling time on their All Black careers and there was a feeling that a new look All Black side although bursting at the seams with promising young talent would need some time to settle before they once more became the all-conquering juggernaut we have become used to seeing when talking about New Zealand.
In short for the rest of the world, no such luck. Although Wales were feisty and often heroic opponents in June, New Zealand simply got better and better with each Test and the series whitewash of Wales was the proof. Although Wales were spirited opponents in the first sixty minutes of the first two Tests giving as good as they got, they ultimately imploded in the final twenty minutes of both matches against All Black masterclass performances, and in the final Test New Zealand simply blew Wales out of the water for the full eighty minutes.
Where does one begin in listing the countless names who stood up and were counted in no uncertain terms in June for New Zealand? In short it’s almost impossible the list is just that long. Dane Coles is probably the most electric hooker in the world with the added bonus of being one of the quickest forwards once out of the blocks and in the loose in Test Rugby. Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock continue to be enormous in the second row, while Sam Cane and Ardie Savea challenge each other hard for the number 7 shirt and both bring their own special skill set to the jersey. Keiran Read led by example as Captain and number eight while Aaron Smith proved he is still in a class of his own at scrum half. New Zealand are gifted with two of the best fly halves in Test Rugby as Aaron Cruden made a welcome return to form from injury and Beauden Barrett provides a spark to the New Zealand attack that is proving increasingly impossible to contain and already shows glimmers of the greatness that Dan Carter brought to the All Black game. Ben Smith was outstanding either on the wing or at fullback and is one of the most gifted players to ever don a New Zealand jersey. Meanwhile Israel Dagg made a blinding return to form from injury at fullback and winger Waisake Naholo caused havoc in the Welsh defensive lines. For me the only player who didn’t really stand out was winger Julian Savea who has rarely impressed at the Super Rugby level this year.
In conclusion, New Zealand are easily the best team in World Rugby at the moment and are likely to stay that way for some time to come. We’ll get a better idea of where they stand once the forthcoming Rugby Championship gets underway next month, but amongst their rivals there is little that is likely to trouble New Zealand. Australia seems adrift, and although Argentina and South Africa will be awkward and rugged opponents the only match where the All Blacks could find a banana skin is likely to be their away fixture against the Springboks in South Africa but even that seems hard to imagine based on the current form of New Zealand teams in Super Rugby and during the Wales series. In just a mere eight months after the World Cup, New Zealand already find themselves in a position of absolute power with the rest of the world scrambling to catch up. For everyone else it’s going to be one hell of a footrace to Japan in 2019!
The Springboks start to life under new Coach Alastair Coetzee got off to the worst possible beginning. In short, South Africa were simply awful in the first 120 minutes of their new Test season. Outclassed by a fourteen-man Irish side in the first Test, there was a feeling that at altitude in Johannesburg a wounded Springbok side would come storming back in the second Test. For the first forty minutes of the Second Test nothing could have been further from the truth as we had to witness one of the worst performances by a Springbok side I have ever had the misfortune of seeing in thirty years of watching Test rugby. Utterly outclassed by a tactically astute Ireland, South Africa went into the dressing rooms looking well beaten already. Then a group of players who ply their trade for a certain Super Rugby side by the name of the Lions were injected into the side that emerged from the tunnel for the second half. Suddenly the Springboks turned from being a herd of startled small antelopes in the headlights into a pack of mighty predators oozing confidence, aggression, speed and some simply breathtaking skill. Ireland to their credit once they had recovered from the initial shock fought bravely but were no match for the rejuvenated Springboks they suddenly found themselves up against.
In the third Test, Coetzee stuck with his Lions prodigies and the Springboks once more showed that they can score tries aplenty and produce some dazzling displays of open running rugby in the process. Ireland rallied in the second half and threw everything, including the kitchen sink at the Springboks, but South Africa were able to switch the game back to their tried and trusted physicality and hold firm despite a continuous assault of green jerseys for the final ten minutes. In short, the Springboks went from being utterly tepid and essentially clueless to being masters of open and exciting rugby in the blink of an eye. As mentioned above it was down entirely to a group of individuals from the Super Rugby side the Lions. The electricity and sense of team spirit and cohesion that these players bring to this Springbok side is extraordinary. Once the likes of Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck came onto the field, a switch was flipped and South Africa suddenly went from zero to hero in seconds. Readers of this blog will be familiar with me and hundreds of South African supporters screaming from the sidelines for Lions players like Whitely, Combrinck, Faf de Klerk and Jaco Kriel to get their Springbok call up which has been overlooked for so long, and the results as seen in this series have finally made our case water tight.
It’s not all about the Lions in terms of the way forward for the Springboks but there is no question that the energy and skillset that the Lions players bring to the side make other players rise to the occasion. The second row Stormers partnership of Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Eben Etzebeth looked lacklustre in the first 120 minutes of the Test series but from then on seemed to suddenly find their rhythm once their Lions colleagues injected some much needed confidence and momentum into the team. However, apart from that there is little to get excited about in the Springbok camp as they look to the forthcoming Rugby Championship. Willie le Roux at fullback, once the golden boy of Springbok rugby a mere two years ago, now looks well past his sell by date. In the centres there are still more questions than answers and the scrum is still for all intents a disaster. However, they have a solid halfback partnership in the Lions duo of Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk. To be honest, if the Lions go all the way in this year’s Super Rugby championship then it will be very hard to avoid the temptation to simply draft the entire Lions squad into the starting fifteen for the Springboks. However, the political pressures surrounding the game in South Africa will sadly probably mean this is unlikely especially at the level of the prestigious Rugby Championship which showcases Springbok rugby to the world.
Despite a generally poor Super Rugby season for South African teams with the glaring exception of the Lions who are simply in a league of their own, there are still grounds for optimism in South African rugby. They have a world beating provincial side in the Lions whose players have clearly shown they can rise to the Test arena, and there is still a huge bank of players throughout the rest of a country which still boasts one of the largest player bases in world rugby. With the right management and development South Africa is more than capable of remaining the powerhouse it has always been. For now, we wait and see, but there are more than just a few of us who hope that the Lions players will have a big part to play in whatever unfolds.
They came, they saw and sadly got taught a lot of painful lessons. It was always going to be an exceptionally tough month for Wales as at the end of one of the longest seasons in Welsh rugby history as they had to rally themselves to take on the best in the business in the shape of the All Blacks in the New Zealanders own backyard. Whatever the results were going to be which already looked one-sided before they even got on the plane, you had to admire Wales for agreeing to the challenge in the first place. Despite knowing what they were up against, Wales were far from being lambs to the slaughter in the first two Tests. Although they were essentially annihilated in the final Test, even then they rarely looked cowed or defeated. I have always felt that this Welsh side is perhaps one of the most resilient and courageous sides in Test Rugby at the moment, and in this series I felt this label to be more than justified. For the first two Tests, Wales did more than just hold their own. For the first sixty minutes of both Tests the All Blacks were made to work exceptionally hard for any points they would score with solid and healthy replies from Wales to match them on the scoreboard. It was the final quarter of both matches that just seemed a bridge too far for the Welsh as a tired team started to run out of gas against an All Black side that seemed to be able to constantly produce surprises built on a truly extraordinary skill set.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign in the Welsh camp in this series was that once more Wales were allowed to run a lot more than usually preferred by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland. Always solid and at times utterly heroic in defence, there is no question about Wales’ ability to absorb and stand up to any physical contests in today’s game, but this has often stifled their ability to be creative in attack. In New Zealand they seemed to have more latitude in this department and it appeared to pay off. Jonathan Davies at centre was absolutely outstanding and caused the opposition defences more problems than the traditional crash and smash approach of his partner Jamie Roberts. Liam Williams at fullback had an outstanding series and I was very impressed by his stand in Rhys Pratchett. Rhys Webb at scrum half had a blistering return to form and Taulupe Faletau at number eight was devastating in the loose for Wales.
So definitely not down and out, but clearly taught a glaring lesson in the demands of the modern game, Wales find themselves with plenty to think about as they prepare for a challenging set of Autumn Internationals. Hopefully well rested after the rigors of the last year, and with some exciting talent coming through the ranks and a much needed change of approach by Warren Gatland to Wales’ style of play, their fortunes should once more start to look up come November. There is little question that Gatland will need to change his approach to how Wales play, and this series should have given him more than enough evidence of the benefits. Always spirited and a team that can consistently boast some exceptional cohesion and motivation, Wales deserve to be one of the top Test Teams in World rugby as their performances while short on results at times invariably inspire. Like many of the Northern Hemisphere teams a process of restructuring and rebuilding is afoot and it is hoped that the players are given the room needed by coaching and management staff to showcase and develop a bank of talent ready to be taken to the next level.
With an exciting weekend of Super Rugby semi-finals ahead of us, we’ll leave you with a glorious wrap up of the best of the June Internationals, and as an apology from us for being so tardy in getting this out this last month. Thanks and enjoy!