Loose Pass

Date published: June 14 2016

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This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Test notes – there’s a lot to cram in!

Crib notes time! Ahead of what has suddenly become a rather more interesting looming weekend of Tests in the Southern Hemisphere.

Seriously, if anybody had asked you what the total score between top Northern national teams and top Southern ones – the latter with home advantage – would be after Saturday, would you have plumped for 2-2?

A few rugby fan friends I know didn’t bother to watch most of it, which made it fun to see their expressions when I told them about Ireland’s triumph in Cape Town, but also draining when attempting to answer the frenzied demands for details, man, details!

So, in bullet-point form, here are the bits and bobs of discussion arising from the weekend’s action (and some from after it), as means of prep for what will surely be a more avidly-watched weekend of Test rugby ahead…

“They are writing us off because of a few losses here and there and because we weren’t chasing the Six Nations title,” quoth CJ Stander three months ago. “Going down to South Africa is going to be a big challenge, you’re going to have to be very physical… But if you’re written off and categorised as the underdogs, then that’s always something extra to fight for, to prove that wrong.”

– Stander won’t play in the second Test after he took himself a little too literally and launched himself hip-first into Patrick Lambie with a degree of recklessness right up there with a Donald Trump environmental policy. Malicious it was not, but all those protesting Stander should have got only yellow on the basis of lack of malice need to understand that recklessness can have consequences too.

Still, carrying on the theme of taking themselves literally, Stander’s team-mates did indeed find that extra something for the next hour and to prove their detractors wrong.

This was a classic Irish performance of heart to back up the discipline. How Conor Murray stopped Duane Vermeulen only he will no. The final act: Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw and Paddy Jackson scrambling to force JP Pietersen into touch, was an epitome of an epic Irish performance.

–  All that said… South Africa clearly have problems going way deeper than just rebuilding after the retirement of a few old heads. Lateral running, indiscipline, even the lineout stuttered. Conceding eight penalties in the first half is not a South African trait. Neither is the poor decision-making that cost a couple of clear-cut opportunities.

There appears not yet to be the usual barrage of barbs and sharpening of hatchets behind the coach that accompanies most Bok defeats, but it’s difficult not to hear the mutterings about how Saturday’s Boks looked at times remarkably similar to the Stormers side that Coetzee coached – not least in terms of under-performing in the scoring department. Coetzee badly needs a big answer next Saturday.

– England were just superb. The most telling statistic – unfortunately it’s not one I can find but I am sure it could be predicted – would be the number of 50-50 balls England won (all hail James Haskell). They were simply hungrier.

You can laud Eddie Jones, his decision to change in Ford for Burrell, the improvement in the scrum, the impregnable lineout and the uptick in quality of basic skills all you like, but if the hunger is not there it will rarely count. England wanted it more, while Australia looked very mentally fragile when the pressure came on. That, really, was the difference between the two teams.

– The atmosphere around Australia seems to be a little bit ugly at the moment. Not within the team, but around it.

This is former – not all that long ago so he’s part of the professional era – Test international player Stephen Hoiles’ question at the post-match press conference: “You seem to be in the press a bit more than Donald Trump this week. And the lads were pumped up, there was a bit of moisture out there and I think you and Glen (Ella) had a good moment, looked lubed up and a fair bit of shrinkage. How did you enjoy that moment with your old mate Glen up in the box?”

What?

Then there’s been the rounds done by other former internationals such as Phil Kearns and Tim Horan, who presented a video dripping with sarcasm surrounding the England team’s past failures. You’d think they’d have learned from 2003.

Eddie Jones’ complaints of disrespect and ill-treatment from the locals are unquestionably anecdotes of irritation bolstered in the detail and used to crank up the mind-games.

But upon hearing of press questions and videos such as the above, it’s a bit hard not to think that the Aussie rugby public and media needs to buy into the team identity as well as the English public has bought into its team identity, if the collective is to progress.

– Was it New Zealand’s defence? An improvement from Wales? A bit of both? It’s been a long time since I saw the All Blacks let that many line breaks go. In the end it was the fitness and simple clinicality that told for New Zealand, but the new team needs to bring itself together a bit.

– As for Wales, a fortnight ago the move away from ‘Warrenball’ came under heavy fire from this column for the lack of progress. We can probably take that all back.

There was better execution of all aspects from the Welsh on Saturday, with the kicking game causing problems and the wide positions adopted by back-row players in support – Taulupe Faletau especially – meaning that there was either frequent space or overlaps.

Questions remain about fitness: losing a half of rugby 24-3 after being in a winning position is not good enough. Questions also remain about clinicality: while the All Blacks exploited any opportunity they got, the Welsh let a couple go – especially at the end of the first half. Still more questions remain about kick-chase: are New Zealand really that good at counter-attacking?

But it’s an improvement. Onwards and upwards – what price another brace of NH wins this weekend?

Finally, an apology to Argentina fans, whose match against Italy was not one I was able to find on TV or on those secret streaming sites nobody knows about.

I am told that Italy looked vastly improved under Conor O’Shea while the Pumas – of whom nearly all were first-choice Jaguares players – looked a little tired and disjointed. Those of you who saw, please do let us know below?

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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