The All Blacks’ demolition of Australia last week must have been a delight for New Zealanders, even if you wonder whether they may sometimes get tired of winning; it was certainly daunting for everybody else. One could only be in awe of the pace and precision, the deft handling and intelligent running lines. Admittedly Australia were poor, falling off tackles and kicking ineptly. Yet on paper this was a stronger Australian XV than the one that lost three Tests to England a couple of months ago.
Anyone who thought – hoped – that the All Blacks might be in a period of transition after the World Cup must think again, abandon that hope. Goodbye Dan Carter and Richie McCaw; welcome Beauden Barrett and Sam Cane. Barrett was quite magnificent, running with the freedom that conventional opinion tells us is impossible for stand-offs faced with a blanket defence in the congested modern game.
New Zealand are still ahead of everyone else. If the authorities were to introduce a handicapping system such as we have in horse-racing, or athletics in the summer Border Games, I reckon they would start matches 0-10 against England and South Africa, 0-15 against Ireland, Wales, Argentina and Australia, 0-20 against France and Scotland, 0-30 against Italy, and so on; and you would still back them to win.
Yet, magnificent as they are, they do regularly benefit from a certain indulgence on the part of referees. Last Saturday, even as one marvelled at the speed and precision with which they recycled the ball after the tackle, one could not fail to notice that time and again an All Black would charge in at the side of the ruck or maul, knocking an opponent out of the way to prevent him from competing. I say “one could not fail to notice”; yet the referee evidently did. It’s impossible to believe that a Fijian, Samoan or indeed a Scot would have been treated so indulgently.
It was evident in the World Cup that the so-called lesser nations were usually treated more harshly by referees than their higher-ranked opponents. Admittedly the side that’s on the back foot, struggling to defend, will usually give away more penalties, and referees are inclined to favour the attacking team, penalising attempts to slow up their possession or kill the ball. Yet attacking teams offend too, and it’s remarkable how often the All Blacks are permitted to transgress with impunity. I’m sure there is no conscious bias, merely an assumption that they are likely to be in the right and their opponents in the wrong.
Laws have, of course, been tweaked to favour the attack, and perhaps this is as it should be. Nevertheless some changes have been questionable. A long time ago if the ball was held up over the line and a five-metre (yard then) scrum awarded, the referee would say “defender’s ball”. Now the put-in goes to the attacking side. In other words, the team that has failed to score from a good position is given a good second chance to do so. The team that has bravely and skilfully defended its line and prevented a try has to do it all over again. I’ve never thought this change good, or even fair. Defence deserves to be rewarded. Moreover, reverting to the old law might make for more attractive rugby, since there would be less incentive to go through a succession of pick-and- drives, greater incentive to spread the play.
We are still in August but the first round of the Scottish Cup and the first round of the Premiership kick off today. Forecasting the league champions is a mug’s game, partly because the strength of any club any weekend varies depending on the number and quality of the professional players made available to it.
In present circumstances there is perhaps no alternative, if pro players not immediately required by Edinburgh or Glasgow are to get match-time. But nobody can really think it’s satisfactory, and there are matches which seem manifestly unfair when one club can field three or four professionals while the other finds that none of those it got in the draft has been made available this week.
Finally, the expectation is that Warren Gatland will be named as the Lions coach for next summer’s series in New Zealand. The Lions are a commercial success and Lions Tests arouse huge public interest. So I’m obviously in a minority, and a small one at that, when I say that the Lions are an outdated concept which does northern hemisphere rugby more harm than good. It also devalues the Six Nations when after every match the pundits argue whether X, Y or Z has improved or damaged his chances of being selected for the Lions.