Five talking points from a weekend of rugby that delivered the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
Save the game
Unheralded and unloved before the World Cup, the 2023 All Blacks must win
the tournament in France to save rugby from itself.
South Africa’s 16-15 win over England in the second semifinal had a heart-pounding last 12 minutes that shouldn’t hide the fact that the rest of the game was as boring as The Game They Play in Hell.
If you hate rugby and want to make sure that someone who has never seen the game is forever turned off by it, then a video of the first half, when England (four penalty goals) lead the Springboks (two) penalty goals) 12-6, is the perfect vehicle to use.
British critics hailed England’s performance as “wonderful”, “masterful” and “heroic”. In fact, England actually reduced a game where running with the ball in your hands was the original, and most important, point of difference in football, to a terrible kick-fest.
As a Kiwi, parochialism plays a role in me wanting the All Blacks to win the title next week.
But hand in heart, I swear that as strong a passion is my love of rugby played with courage, where attacking opportunities are seized, and scoring a try is the first goal.
Of course, I want New Zealand to win the Cup. But I want them to win with flair and class, not with the dead hand that England use to try and squeeze opponents out of the game.
Climb to the top
There has never been an All Blacks coach quite like Ian Foster’s situation right now.
An unforgiving Kiwi public has killed many national coaches in the past. When John Hart, in 1999, and Graham Henry, in 2007, did not coach their teams to the final of a World Cup, they were mocked by fans and the media.
There was also condemnation in the boardroom. Laurie Mains was told by his chairman Eddie Tonks in 1992 when he was appointed as All Blacks coach that “the s*** will hit the fan now”. At the 2003 World Cup, after the All Blacks lost in the semifinal, New Zealand Rugby chairman Jock Hobbs said the board was very angry with John Mitchell. “We might have advertised the coaching position even if the All Blacks had won the Cup.”
But no coach of the All Blacks in the Cup knew that he was replaced 10 months before his team played in the final.
If the All Blacks beat South Africa in Paris, and there is a good chance they will, Foster will almost certainly be offered a knighthood.
After surviving the big Kiwi threshing machine, few deserve it.
A special talent
The depth of Will Jordan’s talent continues to amaze. His speed, kicking and holding skills are matched with an attitude so frozen that he makes chess players look chaotic.
Great players have a gift, which cannot be coached, to be in the right place on the field. Dan Carter has that skill. Of this generation of players, Jordan has the same uncanny sense of space and time.
In the All Blacks’ 44-6 thrashing of a wildly outclassed Argentina, Jordan was his usual impeccable self. In his third attempt, in the 73rd minute, he made a rare appearance with ease. Every element, from his dart past three tacklers to his beautifully weighted forward kick and his effortless try return, was perfect.
Think discipline – and then more discipline
The only drawback to the semifinal victory of the All Blacks was Scott Barrett’s yellow card, which even the most one-eyed New Zealand fan could not dispute.
If there’s a gap in the All Blacks’ armory right now, it’s making frivolous offences. We saw Handre Pollard’s gutsy conversion and penalty kick to win the semifinal for England. In the final against England in 2019, he kicked six penalties. The Boks with Pollard are not a team you want to offer shots on goal.
That’s the way to do it
Meanwhile, the two best watches of the weekend came in Wellington, when the Black Ferns showed great courage but were unable to overhaul France, who won their women’s international 18-17, and in New Plymouth , where Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay played a brilliant NPC final.
The New Plymouth game has it all. A loud, happy crowd of 13,000 people. Two teams that ran with freedom and purpose, until Taranaki came out on top with a 22-19 victory that won the title. And there was a moment you could have sworn Taranaki coach Neil Barnes, a man who epitomized the good buggers of grassroots rugby, had to wipe away a tear at the final whistle.
Barnes was 100 percent when after the game, he made a request for national officials to work on bringing back tribalism in the game.