The Springbok World Cup winners aren’t in action at the moment because of the coronavirus suspension of rugby in South Africa but that does not mean the impact of their triumph in Japan last year isn’t being felt elsewhere in the world.
In both the Aotearoa competition being played in New Zealand and in the Australian domestic competition that has replaced Super Rugby, there are elements of the South African success recipe very much in evidence. In particular, there appears to be more focus in both countries on the driving maul, while the benefits of a really strong, formidable scrumming unit have been to the fore too.
Okay, so you may say that it is not rocket science that those are pillars of winning rugby, but it just seems from watching both competitions that there’s more attention being paid to those areas of the game, and they are bringing results.
The Brumbies, who started heading down a more South African type path when Jake White was coaching them nearly a decade ago, got out of a hole against the Reds in Canberra at the weekend almost exclusively because of their maul.
They set up three line-out driving opportunities in the game and they scored all three times. Their third try came at a time when the Reds were on top, leading by six points, and any other kind of try was highly unlikely.
The Highlanders came back from the break driven by Covid-19 with much more intent in the maul and it reaped dividends for them in the early weeks of Aotearoa. The Hurricanes appear to have learned from the mauling they received from the Bok dominated Stormers pack in the first round of the original global edition of Super Rugby 2020, and the Blues have profited from an opposite experience on their more recent visit to Cape Town.
The Blues’ strong scrumming and driving off the scrum accounted for a lot of the headway they made against the Highlanders as they kept their Aotearoa silverware hopes alive with their first win in Dunedin since 2011 and hence their first win under the roof at the new Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Sunday’s performance was also built around a physical defensive system and a highly potent penchant for making the most of the resulting turn-over ball. Pivotal to what was possibly the Blues’ best showing in the competition so far was a much more influential performance from Beauden Barrett than we have seen from him since he traded the yellow of the Hurricanes for the blue jersey.
It was Barrett’s second appearance at flyhalf since making the switch back from fullback and he revelled in being back in his preferred position, with a little dummy kick followed by a skip pass that led to one of the tries being just one highlight of a strong game for him.
If there is one weakness in Barrett it remains the one that has always plagued him and which possibly played a role in the All Black decision to include both him and Richie Mo’unga in the same team: His place-kicking.
While Barrett was brilliant in his all-round game, his attempts off the tee produced a shower. Only two of his five conversion attempts were successful, and not all of them were from difficult positions.
The crucial thing for the Blues was that they managed to grab the bonus point for scoring three more tries than the Highlanders, and that means there is still a chance that the final game of the season between the Blues and Crusaders in Auckland two Sundays hence will have something riding on it.
But the Blues are still two points behind the Crusaders. The Crusaders have a game in hand on the second-placed team.
While the Blues take their second bye this coming weekend, the Crusaders are at home to the Highlanders. On the evidence of what we saw in the latest round, the Crusaders should win, and that will effectively clinch them the first Aotearoa trophy and render the blockbusting Eden Park finale to the league competition a dead rubber.
The Crusaders were back to their best in their away win against the Chiefs in the first Aotearoa game to be played this past weekend but it was nonetheless another game where the Chiefs must wonder what they have done to invoke the ire of the gods of rugby luck.
The Crusaders try that eventually put some daylight between the teams deep into the second half should never have been awarded as there was a clear knock-on from Quinten Strange in the build-up.
Indeed, refereeing will remain a talking point in New Zealand this week, as the Blues were unlucky not to have an intercept try to flanker Dalton Papili’i awarded to them in Dunedin on Sunday. It was at a critical stage of the game too, with the Blues in a position to put daylight on the scoreboard had the try been awarded. Instead, they had to go back for a penalty that Josh Ioane kicked to give the Highlanders the lead by one point.
Fortunately, the Blues were too relentless on the day for it to become an issue, but it would have been considered another controversial Aotearoa refereeing moment had they not won.
Meanwhile, the Brumbies’ close sneak against the Reds leaves them as the only unbeaten team in Australia at the halfway point of that competition and they are in a commanding position on the log table. But they are far from convincing with their performances, and the Reds are improving.
The quality of both packs is good and overall the Australian competition, although nowhere near the level of the Aotearoa, is improving.
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