Defeats, Sir Steve Hansen used to say, are much better teachers than victories, but the All Blacks presumably learned plenty during their narrow win over a limited Springboks team, and several players may be on tenterhooks in terms of selection this week.
Chief among them will be Akira Ioane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and George Bridge. All four were put under immense pressure and failed to perform to their capabilities, and such is the depth in their positions (Barrett apart given Richie Mo’unga has just returned from two weeks in MIQ) that others may be given opportunities this week.
This is as it should be, and perhaps the All Blacks were getting a little too comfortable after their three previous performances in Australia, which ranged from very good to excellent against the Wallabies and Pumas (twice).
What the 19-17 victory over the Boks in a humid Townsville did confirm is that no team, no matter how talented, performs well when constantly on the back foot. It also highlighted that test rugby at the highest level is an intense and ruthless business. Ian Foster’s selections this week may reflect that.
The whole rugby world has known for the past five years or so that the All Blacks have the best attacking weapons in the game, but that they have been vulnerable to defensive line speed, and so it was proven again, and in many ways Foster’s men were masters of their own demise via their near constant errors.
They were exposed by the Boks and probably should have lost the test but instead the world champions lost their nerve for their third loss on the bounce.
The re-match this Saturday on the Gold Coast will provide an excellent platform for the All Blacks to show that they can come up with strategies to cope with that defensive pressure because the Boks aren’t going to change in seven days.
Why would they when they got so much success by playing so little rugby? It was only in the final minutes when they were defending their one-point advantage that they blew it when Handre Pollard kicked the ball aimlessly away rather than into the air. It allowed the All Blacks to stretch the Boks’ defence for almost the first time in the test, with replacement midfielder Quinn Tupaea winning an excellent turnover penalty despite being outnumbered and Jordie Barrett holding his nerve from long range.
Loose forward Ioane has been in his element in the looser test environments provided by the Wallabies and Pumas but he failed to make an impact here. Ethan Blackadder, meanwhile, looks ready-made for the Boks. Initially named on the reserves bench, the Crusader was named to start at openside flanker when Luke Jacobson fell ill and it was a serendipitous selection. He is becoming indispensable.
Should Dalton Papalii return from a hamstring injury to wear the No7 jersey, Blackadder should count himself unlucky if he doesn’t wear No6, with Ardie Savea at No8. If Papalii isn’t fit, a Blackadder, Savea, Jacobson loose trio would be a good fit.
Perenara has done well on his return but his lack of speed once he gets to the breakdown was exposed by the Boks. Brad Weber is a worthy replacement after upping his team’s tempo off the bench, and Bridge is likely to get a rest after gifting the Boks a try, with Rieko Ioane likely on the left wing should Anton Lienert-Brown return from his hamstring issue.
The Beauden Barrett situation is less straightforward. He wasn’t as accurate as he would have liked last Saturday – he threw a poor early pass only to see it brilliantly tidied up by Codie Taylor, which led to Will Jordan’s try – and once again showed that he struggles against defensive line speed. Given Richie Mo’unga has only just served his two weeks of MIQ, Barrett will wear the No10 jersey but Mo’unga’s stocks have probably risen despite his absence and he’ll likely be on the reserves bench.
With tests against Wales, Ireland and France to come on their Northern tour, the All Blacks must quickly get used to playing teams with limited attacking ambition. They didn’t adapt quickly enough against the Boks and the suspicion remains that the South Africans, for all their limitations, have a game plan and pack which could yet give them an edge when it comes to defending the William Webb Ellis trophy in France in two years’ time.
They weren’t up for it against the Wallabies, but they were for the All Blacks, and that will be the case on the big stage in 2023.
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