With Glasgow playing their first match in the European Champions Cup a few hours after I write this, it would be vain to speculate on their chance of getting out of their pool for the first time. It’s a hard task. To put it in perspective, Paul O’Connell said this week that for Munster, who are in the same pool as Glasgow, along with Leicester and Racing 92, to do that would be as great an achievement as their double winning of the old Heineken Cup was in his playing days.
Last week, Edinburgh at last played with flair and enterprise in their handsome defeat of Treviso. Admittedly some of the Treviso defence was very poor, the excellent Magnus Bradbury, for example, brushing off three or four feeble tackles as he galloped for a try, and the equally admirable Hamish Watson doing much the same for his one. The continuing development of these two young flankers is one reason for hoping that Edinburgh’s future may be a lot brighter than their past. Watson is, one assumes, unlikely to displace John Hardie when Vern Cotter picks his team for the autumn internationals, but, in his present form, he can’t be that far behind. Sean Kennedy at scrum-half seemed to have regained the form that made him, three years or so ago, appear to be Greig Laidlaw’s likely successor in the Scotland team. Then his form dipped and perhaps he lost confidence, partly because his coaches at Edinburgh didn’t seem to have much confidence in him.
Against Treviso, he looked like a player re-born. His service was fast and accurate and he sniped around the fringes in spritely style. Laidlaw and Henry Pyrgos will surely be the two number 9s in the squad for the autumn internationals, and, of the younger generation, Glasgow’s Ali Price is probably next in line. But, if Kennedy can reproduce this form regularly, he may have leap-frogged his Edinburgh colleagues, Sam Hidalgo-Cline and Nathan Fowles. If only we had such strength in depth in other positions.
The highlight of last weekend’s rugby was unquestionably New Zealand’s demolition of South Africa. I’ve never seen anything like it, not at least since the autumn of 1951 when the Springboks beat Scotland 44-0, with a try worth only three points. The All Blacks ran in nine tries, seven after the interval, and, but for a few handling errors in the first half, they might have scored a dozen.
Seven tries in 40 minutes against South Africa – it’s well-nigh incredible. There have been seasons when we haven’t scored seven in 400 minutes of the Six Nations. It’s often said there’s no substitute for experience. This young All Blacks side showed there’s no substitute for speed of thought and foot. Their performance left one wondering how on earth anyone can find a way to beat them.
You certainly won’t do it by playing as South Africa did, with a stand-off – Morne Steyn – standing almost the length of a cricket pitch behind the gain-line and booting the ball upfield, either into touch or speculatively high into the air.
“Thank a lot,” the All Blacks said, regaining the ball and resuming their attack, master-minded by their utterly brilliant stand-off Beauden Barrett, who takes the ball running fast on the gain-line. He runs at speed and distributes the ball with an astonishing virtuosity. And the All Blacks have a front five all of whom handle better than Northern Hemisphere or South African back divisions.
Eddie Jones has said you can not beat the All Blacks by trying to play them at their own game. Fair enough perhaps; they run faster, choose better angles, support and handle better than any other team in the world. Keep possession, deny them the ball and, when you make a tackle, win the turnover or at least slow up their recycling: these are all obvious things to seek to do. Easier said than done.
Furthermore, there’s little point in putting the ball into touch, because the All Blacks will win their own line-out and be ready immediately to be on the move again. In any case, the sad truth is that, with only 30 per cent possession, they are capable of outscoring opponents by three tries to one.
Moreover, they run so relentlessly and move the ball with such flair that the opposition will sooner or later run out of tacklers. This is a team that can lose players like Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and even Richie McCaw, and come up with a XV better than the one which won the last two World Cups. Sean Fitzpatrick says they are the best All Blacks team ever. Thank goodness we’re not playing them this autumn.
The way they are playing can demoralise any side. One wonders how long it will take the Springboks to recover from last Saturday’s demolition. When they beat us 44-0 in that long-ago November, we didn’t win another international for four years.