This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a renaissance, a drop in standards and a summit clash which could define England’s club season…
Old boy to the rescue
South Africa’s win over the Wallabies on Saturday did nothing to assuage the impression the Boks are set for a long, lean spell after years of skill stagnation and the recent re-emergence of devilish non-rugby related selection policies. But there were bright sides on show from the older heads, not least Morné Steyn.
The veteran fly-half, who boasts an extraordinary number – 23 – of individual and national team records (nicking his 23rd with his fourth penalty on Saturday by accumulating more Test penalties then Percy Montgomery), was superb in his 65th cap on Saturday. Flawless goalkicking is hardly unfamiliar territory for the former Bull, nor is a penchant for landing killer drop goals from distance to keep the scoreboard ticking over. But this was an all-action performance, the points backed up by a number of tough tackles and some really good, crisp, serve-it-up-on-a-sixpence passing, which ought to have set his backline in better motion than it did.
As Elton Jantjes watched on from the stands in the knowledge that he is very much in the last-chance saloon when it comes to leading a Test backline, Steyn gave a masterclass on making the best of meagre possession, decision-making under pressure and execution.
With the porcelain-limbed Patrick Lambie clearly nowhere near Test sharpness, Steyn is without a doubt the solution going forward for South Africa’s long-standing fly-half problem. It remains to be seen if Handré Pollard returns as the player he once was next year, but irrespective of that, the key to a better long-term solution now might be to shut Jantjes and Steyn in a room together for a week with a laptop for a period of intense schooling.
Good enough for the rest, but not the best
If there were any Bok fans or neutrals suspecting that the All Blacks might go into Saturday’s dead rubber in Durban with any hint of complacency at all, the stony faces among the coaching staff at the end of the Test in Argentina told a very different tale.
It’s rare for the All Blacks to lose a half of rugby, never mind the ‘I’ve found the Cullinan Diamond’ rarity of them losing over 80 minutes. So going down 14-7 in the second half in Buenos Aires, not to mention the loss of two players to eminently avoidable yellow cards, will be a theme to be discussed in camp AB this week and a stat to be rectified on Saturday.
Some commenters have used the comparative earliness of the changes made during the match as an excuse for the disjointed nature of the second-half performance, but this has not been a feature of the All Blacks make-up up to now – indeed, such is the nature of the elite squad constitution and the emphasis on both competition for places and seamless transitions among the squad that such excuses are not permitted internally.
Steve Hansen has pretty much iterated the changes he is going to make for Saturday’s game. It’s a mark of that constitution that you really can’t tell the difference between first and second teams any more with the All Black squad. Whoever starts in Durban will be tasked with making sure that those impeccable standards do not drop again, no matter what the half-time score.
Sunday’s day of reckoning
Barnet is the place to be for English rugby fans this coming Sunday. It’s not just that Saracens’ title as best rugby team in England is under the most real threat there’s been for a couple of years, there’s also the small matter of the hosts’ vivid memories of last season’s 63-24 thrashing in the corresponding fixture.
Big scores are a familiar feature of Dai Young’s team’s season to date. The average over the five games is 39 points and that’s with some palpable flaws still in their game, not least the kicking game. But the counter-attacking and running is fully functional as Saturday’s seven-try dismantling of Harlequins showed.
Saracens showed their mean and more clinical streak at Bristol on Friday, with a lesser score piled up but a hugely satisfying zero given away to the opposition. It’s still the best defence in England by some distance.
England’s best attack against its best defence? Yes please – especially given that the Allianz Park pitch will negate any underfoot conditions caused by the weather.
And then there’s the sub-plots. Nathan Hughes against Billy Vunipola will be one to savour as the newly-English former attempts to prise the latter away from his white number eight jersey. But the pick of the bunch will surely be Danny Cipriani against Alex Lozowski.
Lozowski was signed from Wasps in the off-season, thought of at the time as being the third in line to the black and yellow jersey behind Cipriani. Five Premiership matches later, the former is now third in line to England’s number ten spot, while the latter remains frozen out – should Lozowski continue to develop, the freeze may never thaw. Cipriani has had numerous points to prove throughout his career, this weekend may represent the biggest.
Contentious England squad calls to be disproven, a Premiership table lead on the line and did we mention England’s best attacking side against its best defensive one? Yes please. See you in Barnet.
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens