It was the best of games, it was (not really, but for the sake of literary allusions we’ll call it) the worst of games.
Springboks 20-27 All Blacks
What a glorious match from two teams with high ambition and genuine respect.
Five tries, all coming from subtle skill rather than mere brute strength.
It was such a lovely thing to watch, I almost might not have minded if the Boks had hung on for the win.
This Springbok side under coach Heyneke Meyer have given away the kick and chase of the previous era to play a fast possession style. They maybe do not have the depth across the squad to quite pull it off yet – witness how they have dropped away in the final 20 minutes of both Championship matches as the bench players come on – but they will be a really serious challenge in England.
Pumas 9-34 Wallabies
Let me just put something straight out there, rather than dancing around the ugly truth with hints and allegations.
Michael Cheika, the Wallabies coach, is a flat-track bully.
noun, a sportsperson who dominates inferior opposition, but who cannot beat top-level opponents.
Actually, you could drop the ‘flat-track’ part and be closer to the truth.
His approach to the game is that it is about physical intimidation. It is about dominating the collision, smashing the opponent off their ball, crashing and bashing and wrestling your way across the line. Only when you have the physical upper hand do you try anything clever or subtle or pretty.
It’s an approach that encourages players to go beyond the letter and the spirit of the game in order to achieve a physical and psychological advantage over their opponents. Twice in this match Wallabies players engaged in outrageously dangerous behaviour in plain sight of the referee (and the television cameras). In the first Will Skelton, lying on the ground, grabbed an Argentinian player around the throat and pulled. In the second, Quade Cooper made a late tackle around the neck of another Argentinian, and then threw his arms up as if to say he didn’t, or it was accidental, or what exactly? He then shook his head as he was sent to the bin. What precisely were you disagreeing with Mr Cooper?
And if that stuff is what is going on in plain sight, what is happening in the murkier parts of a match? (News this morning is that Michael Hooper has been cited for punching in the 59th minute.)
Twice the Wallabies scored tries when one of their flankers ran blocking moves against the defenders to create the gap. Watch that last try, for example – the one that got them a bonus point – and you will see Michael Hooper running a blocking line in front of Israel Folau, actually pushing the Argentinian defender out of the way.
These things do not happen by accident. They are coached to happen. Players such as Skelton are selected simply for their physical attributes, even though their skills are embarrassingly shallow. And I reckon that if you watch the tape closely, you will see that some of the senior players are embarrassed by it.
If there is any justice in the world, this approach will come unstuck at the Rugby World Cup. The Wallabies will be met by opposition who cannot be shoved around, and the referees will penalise them off the park.
In spite of all that smash and bash, the Pumas’ inexperience was their losing of this match. When Cooper was yellow-carded the score was 9-19. They should have kicked the 3 points, and used the 10 minutes of being one player up to accumulate some more. That would have put in them in raiding range of a win in the last few minutes.
Instead they kicked for a lineout, lost it, then made an error to give the next lineout to the Wallabies around halfway, and then muffed the defence of the box kick, giving Foley a kickable penalty. Result? Instead of being 12-19 and ready to rumble, they were 9-22 and playing desperate catch up.
The Pumas are clearly a step below the top rank in terms of skills, but at least they are trying. Some of their short interpassing was sweet as, although they couldn’t exploit their breaks and their fullback couldn’t tackle a sandwich.
This match has made my preferences for Pool A in RWC2015 much, much easier.