Well the Bi-Lions won their first game against the Provincial Barbarians through a superb display of defence. The try scored by Anthony Watson came as pressure told. This was aggressive defence at its best. As to back play, Laidlaw was sound at scrumhalf, giving a fine service. On the whole, passing was accurate, but needed even more precision. Excellent passing is important; final passes are crucial. Look, it took just one poor final pass by Stuart Hogg to right wing, Watson’s shin and a try had gone. A comment on Anderson Heather’s try for the Barbarians: with a scrum a mere five metres from the try line, can anyone expect a Laidlaw to stop a very strong and large Number Eight? No! Defence planning should have had a bigger defender next to the scrum.
The match against the Blues of Auckland was revealing. The home team, playing above any other performance this season, won well: three tries to one. Webb, at scrumhalf for the visitors, had a poor game. His box-kicking was hapless and inaccurate. Time and again he gave possession away. As to the Blues’ distribution skills, one was in awe. Those of us interested in the finer points of the game and in the various ways in which to pass a rugby ball, will have watched the wonderful art of the ‘offload’, leading to Ihaiah West’s superb try. Sonny Bill Williams, ‘King of the Offload’, ran into the tackle, protected the ball with his right hand and offloaded to a charging Luatua on his outside. He in turn took the tackle, burst partly through and released another offload to West. Amazing skill! (South African players are using the offload in the tackle more and more, but coaches seem comatose at best as to its value, with the exception of the local Lions’ coaches.)
So to the encounter between the Bi-Lions and the Crusaders in Christchurch, the home team unbeaten in the Super 18 competition thus far. Those who saw this thrilling match with not one try, but who appreciate a contest between competing strategies, will have been as enthralled as I was.
The Bi-Lions’ defence was, once again, rock-solid. This was a display of concentrated determination and effective tackling. The smother-tackle was much in evidence; they had learned after Sonny Bill’s distribution skills that the object of the tackle nowadays is ‘man-and-ball’. Behind a marauding pack of forwards, Conor Murray played with excellent touch. He gave a masterclass in how to execute the box-kick. On almost every occasion, his players were able to contest possession as the ball came down. Passing, on the whole, was sound....but! One appalling pass from Ben Tio to Liam Watson on the left wing went above and behind the receiver’s head and this when a try was on. That’s twice a try has gone begging on this tour because of a very poor final pass. This sort of thing can cost a match and even a series. Take note.
The Crusaders looked shell-shocked as the match went on. They had no counter to the game-plan of the visitors. Captaincy and leadership from Sam Whitelock were woefully absent. And, at the end of the game in his interview, Whitelock lacked the essential grace to point to the fine play of the Bi-Lions and merely referred to his side’s own errors. I’ll say it again, ”Success is a fickle mistress”. This unbeaten team thought ‘more of the same’ would do it. Poor coaching, poor captaincy and poor attitude are the only explanations.
The last time I recall a test match where all the points came from penalties – there are I am sure others – was in the first test between the Springboks and the All Blacks at Newlands in 1949. Result: 9-3; three penalties, with the ball lying like a low torpedo on a mound of earth, kicked by front row, Okey Geffin of Transvaal and one in reply from Kearney, the New Zealand flyhalf. I listened to the match on my crystal set. Remember those!
Now for the international at Loftus Versfeld between the Springboks and the French......will write later.
LATER....A good win for the Boks against an erratic French team with flashes of brilliance but, at times, a porous defence, hapless in the face of powerful forward running. I have also never seen more ragged passing by a French team, admittedly under great pressure from its determined opponents. Noticeable this season is the acceptance that not ‘too many’ forwards are committed to the ruck. This allows loose-forwards to hang wide, in this case Whiteley. The All Blacks have used this tactic for years with Read and Coles playing like outside backs. (I know it was cold but I’ve never seen a smaller crowd for a test at Loftus Versfeld.)
Jantjies and Cronje played very well, with superb judgement of ‘what to do when’. While the scrumhalf is, in my view, still a little slow to the breakdowns, he played with assurance and confidence. His try was a gem out of the ‘Lions’ (Gauteng) playbook.