Rugby Championship: South Africa and New Zealand impress in openers
Stuart Barnes can't wait for South Africa and New Zealand to collide in The Rugby Championship.
Last Updated: 19/08/13 12:46pm
The All Blacks were too organised, intelligent and intense for Australia in Sydney while Argentina was overwhelmed in front of a joyous 52,000 in Soccer City, Soweto.
There was much in the way of contrast in the two overwhelming performances but it was what they shared that needs noting.
Both teams based their game on the eternal verities of this sport. You have to win the front foot, whether it is at the breakdown or in the tackle.
If the Wallabies could give Will Genia phase possession that is a second quicker and going forward Ewen McKenzie's team could be a different proposition in Wellington.
But what an 'if'; that requires a cultural change in the way the Wallabies are trying to play the game. Numerically they are light at the breakdown, seeking to utilise the numbers wider out who would once have been competing to guarantee that ball.
In stark contrast the New Zealanders often throw significant numbers into the point of collision, looking to negate possession by slowing it down until it is unusable or effecting the turnovers from which they are so deadly.
Lead by the rugby brain and drive of Richie McCaw we witnessed another acutely smart effort at the breakdown. When it is not on the Kiwis flood the field with defenders, when there is a sniff of a turnovers the numbers are thrown into the fray... and always there is the skipper, somehow a shade on the wrong side, unravelling that battered body as he clambers slowly to his feet, fractionally off putting time after time. The fractions add up. He is a master.
Intellect and understanding rate high on the New Zealand check list. If McCaw is the brains up front, Conrad Smith is not far behind him as an influence in the back line (and at the breakdown). He was marvellous, whether creating or scoring tries or nicking crucial turnovers. His defence is based upon a razor sharp reading off the game.
It is no coincidence that when Smith had an off game at Twickenham, New Zealand lost the game. He is not the stuff of headlines but he remains one of the most influential players on the planet.
Both these men look as if they will have to play at the peak of their game when they meet the Springboks. Heyeneke Meyer is building a formidable side in the image of that once mighty Blue Bulls team he coached to glory.
The template remains the same, stamped authentic in Pretoria. A pack of immense power, a fabulous line out and a kicking game that is deadly accurate from the ground and out of hand. Prior to Saturday's seventy point romp in Soweto he described confidence as "a strange thing." If he and his side are not bursting with it in South America next Saturday it will indeed be amongst the weirdest of commodities.
Overconfidence appears to be a bigger threat than an Argentina side that was shell shocked by full time. The pre match loss of their leader, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, was a blow as were the early departures of other veterans, Juan Martin Hernandez and Patrice Albecete but they would have had no more hope than King Canute of stemming this high tide of Springbok accuracy and power.
Their coach wanted them to be ruthless and efficient and how they answered his requests in a second half brutal in its surging accuracy. The forwards overpowered Argentina and without the ability to compete at set piece and breakdown the South Americans are a limited operation. Like New Zealand it was front foot all the way for the Springboks. Off a constantly driving platform there were several notable efforts.
Last week I wrote about the value of experience. McCaw delivered from the off but Fourie du Preez had to wait before emerging from the bench. The match was over as a contest and how he competes against better opposition is uncertain but who would bet against him having a longer term role to play for South Africa after the classic cameo.
The speed of his service was sensational as was his accuracy. The hard work was done but he had that undoubted aura attached to the great players. Outside him and Ruan Pienaar, Morne Steyn was all calm and impassive.
Again, the All Blacks and Aussies might be able to test his all round game more but if they cannot stem the front foot tide of Springbok power up front then he will have a huge role to play in this competition.
Tactically he is solid, while his goal kicking is the best around at test level these days.
New Zealand were delighted with their defence against the Wallabies but with him kicking everything that does not move, New Zealand might not find it so easy to win against a side scoring in the high twenties as the Wallabies did.
The collision at contact between the nous of New Zealand and the seismic power of the Springboks will be something to behold. At the heart of South Africa's gathering forward storm is 21 year old Eben Etzebeth.
He is a lock forward in the Martin Johnson mould; hard, flinty and uncompromising but at the tender age of 21 he is miles ahead of him in terms of influence. A player of truly awesome ability seems to be emerging test by test.
Whether it is his spring in the line out, his ballast at the breakdown or his commitment in the carry, this looks to be an exceptional talent emerging.
Juandre Kruger is a fine foil. The Springboks might just have unearthed their 2015 version of Bakkies and Victor. If they have the world will know about this team.
The Springboks have also settled on a strategy of impact off the bench. Coenie Oosthuizen, Bismark du Plessis and Siya Kolisi have the ability to shatter opposition with their power and pace in the final twenty while Jan Serfontein evokes memories of Danie Gerber. For those with long memories, enough said. For those of more tender years, just watch this kid.
Through history these teams have dominated the game with only Australia and England briefly dislodging them from the top of the world tree. It will take some team to dislodge them from their usual positions on the evidence of the weekend.
One other thought before thoughts turn towards the Championship's second round. Was it not good to see scrum halves being forced to feed straight into the scrum?
The early penalties against Argentina reflected the fact of Springbok power as the set piece reverted to being a true contest rather than merely a mode of restart as some unthinking elements of the sport would have had it be.
The majority of talk is about timing but the straight feed is not the result of improvements but the heart of the remedy to a set piece that has too often bordered on the farcical.
The crooked feed has always been against the laws of the game but for some stupid reason referees and administrators took to overlooking it.
It played a major part in the disruption of the scrum; its return to the forefront of referees minds will play a significant part in restoring it to the game for the good of the sport, strong scrummagers and attacking back lines all.