Two Great Escapes by the All Blacks and Australia over the weekend showed how foolhardy it is to nominate any one team hot favourite to win next year’s Webb Ellis Cup.
As the only three time winner, New Zealand deserve respect, as does two-time victor South Africa who squared their last two clashes with a nail-biting win and a loss, the latest last Sunday when the All Blacks charged home from 13-30 down to win 32-30 at the death with Richie Mo’unga’s conversion of Ardie Savea’s try.
Fittingly, both men came off the reserves bench to play key roles in the comeback after the Springboks completely dominated the surprisingly inept All Blacks in the first spell.
With Siya Kolisi and Malcolm Marx once again leading a powerful pack, halfback Faf de Klerk kicked astutely and harried Aaron Smith and the strong-running centre combination of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel was rewarded for shading Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty with well-taken tries.
But this time astute coach Rassie Erasmus made a mistake in substituting the powerful Marx and cheeky de Klerk a shade early with the All Blacks scoring their last two converted tries in the final five minutes to snatch an improbable victory.
Just as they had against Argentina the previous week, Savea and Mo’unga were major contributors, the former making crucial tackles and sharp runs before scoring the equalising try before the latter’s conversion.
At one stage last year, the athletic Savea was rated third No 7 in the country behind rugged Sam Cane and the astute Matt Todd but has shown against the Pumas as a No 8 and the Boks as a 7 that he’s refined his game.
While Kieran Read is a smart skipper and an automatic starter, he’s not the sharp attacker he was before undergoing back surgery whereas the aggressive Savea’s speed makes him a dangerous attacking threat.
In the absence of the injured Joe Moody, powerful loosehead prop Karl Tu’inukuafe has cemented his berth and reserve tighthead Ofa Tu’ungafasi is a better ball carrier than experienced Owen Franks.
Although versatile Scott Barrett did well combining with Sam Whitelock, the injured Brodie Retallick was hugely missed within a pack that was well beaten in the possession stakes.
TJ Perenara’s muscular performance off the bench was timely and Mo’unga’s pass and option-taking was superior to that of Beauden Barrett who looked more comfortable when moved to fullback.
Interestingly, only five starting members of the 2015 All Blacks World Cup winning team started this latest test against the Boks.
Satisfying as the All Blacks comeback was, Australia’s was even more miraculous in coming from 7-31 down at half-time to score an amazing 38 second spell points for a 45-34 win.
While England finished a disappointing fifth in the Six Nations, they and champions Ireland should further test the All Blacks No 1 status on the northern hemisphere tour,
By then Retallick, Dane Coles. Joe Moody, Liam Squire and Nepo Laulala are likely to have recovered from injuries to be available for selection.
Retallick and Coles will be especially welcomed although hooker Codie Taylor has been one of the most consistently outstanding forwards in Coles’ absence.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author