The All Blacks met that challenge, but it still wasn't a true Test
Rugby is a stop-start affair these days.
We get 10-second bursts of action, before the referee blows his whistle and everyone stops for a drink of water and a chat. It’s becoming more NFL-like by the day.
But some of the rugby played by both teams was daft and I was infuriated by the intrusions of referee Damon Murphy.
A bit of work’s gone into shaming the Springboks into playing some rugby this season. Just as there’s been criticism of the British & Irish Lions’ tactics, largely from people with axes to grind with Warren Gatland.
But, honestly, South Africa’s approach to rugby as it’s being officiated these days is nothing if not pragmatic.
It’s a game that slowly lurches from set-piece, to set-piece and where teams largely accrue points via defensive pressure. Pump the ball deep, race up on defence and hope to gain a turnover or a kickable penalty.
This is the test that awaits the All Blacks. It’s all very well to run rings around Australia, but you assume Argentina and South Africa will provide more difficult Rugby Championship assignments.
The Wallabies are inaccurate, tactically naive and can’t kick goals. Hardly a recipe for success in the current era.
But there’s elements of that in the All Blacks’ play as well, which should make for more compelling viewing as this competition continues.
There was still plenty of merit to New Zealand’s win on Sunday.
I’m on the record as having misgivings about Rieko and Akira Ioane, for instance, but the All Blacks’ staff deserve praise for the performances they’ve been able to coax out of the pair.
Akira is a gifted athlete, with a strong Sevens pedigree, so he’s always going to carry well in open spaces, but the abrasiveness and accuracy of his recent play is a real credit to all concerned.
Brodie Retallick is a welcome addition to the second row and it was fantastic to see Beauden Barrett running the cutter again from first five-eighth.
If Australia were ever going to be a threat to New Zealand this year, then Sunday was the occasion. Sadly, they just couldn’t get out of their own way.
Just as disappointing, though, is that we still can’t get a read on these All Blacks.
That’s why you hope South Africa and Argentina aren’t conned into playing expansive rugby. You want them to opt for slow, attritional affairs that suit their skill sets and potentially stymie what New Zealand are good at.
I’m not sure why Kiwi fans seem to sniff at the Springboks’ tactics. After all, they’re not that dissimilar to the gameplan the Crusaders have successfully employed over many years.
That’s part of the intrigue here because, as beautiful a footballer as Beauden Barrett is, he’s neither a renowned game manager nor a particularly reliable goalkicker.
Do the law interpretations allow the All Blacks the latitude to play the high-tempo, multi-phase game they prefer? And can they generate points when the opposition aren’t gifting them intercepts?
It’s not as if we can assume New Zealand will be able to accumulate points via penalty goals.
But, then, this is what the game needs. We need uncertainty about the potential outcomes, we need varied styles of play and questions of adaptability and we definitely need to see these All Blacks under pressure.
That’s good for rugby and good for this team and will ultimately garner them great respect if they’re able to prevail in difficult circumstances.
Sunday was a challenge, in respect to who made themselves unavailable beforehand and who was then injured or sent off in the course of the match. The All Blacks met that challenge, but the match still wasn’t a true test.
Those now await the team, in the form of Argentina and South Africa, and that’s exciting.
Especially if the Pumas and Springboks remain content to play at their absolute boring best.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now