There were more talking points than ever as England and Wales rounded off their summer tours and Scotland took on Argentina.
New Zealand’s 36-13 win over England was their 17th consecutive Test triumph and equalled the record winning run for a top tier rugby nation. They are playing scintilating rugby, and seem to keep plucking new players from the talent trees to add to the depth of their squad.
Leading the way for them on Saturday was wing Julian Savea, who would have had a hat-trick inside the first 15 minutes if the potential scoring pass for the third try had not been forward. He did complete his hat-trick at the very end of the match, while scrum-half Aaron Smith chipped in with two tries.
Can the All Blacks maintain this world-beating, winning run all the way through to the 2015 World Cup? If not, will they be able to bounce straight back to winning ways after a slip-up, whenever it comes, or will they slide away, out of contention for the sport’s biggest prize? Time will tell.
What a response from Wales to last week’s 38-16 stuffing by the Springboks. In the second Test they came out of the blocks like an Olympic sprinter, took the game to South Africa with pace, power and precision and were only denied a memorable win in the closing minutes.
Alex Cuthbert was outstanding going forward and got his team on the front foot. The Wales wing made 66 metres during the match, which was bettered only by Springbok full-back Willie le Roux. Up front Gethin Jenkins was outstanding in the loose, but there were standout performers all through the team.
So it was heartbreaking to see the Springboks awarded a penalty try in the last two minutes, which enabled them to sneak ahead 31-30. Even then Wales could have snatched a win as Dan Biggar went for two long-range drop-goals, but his team should have been more patient and worked him closer to the line before taking the shot. Clive Woodward’s England used to talk about TCUP – thinking clearly under pressure – and that is a skill Wales need to learn.
Maro Itoje did something on Friday that at least one other English sporting captain would like to have done this summer – he lifted a World Cup. The captain of England U20s piloted his team to a second successive Junior World Championship, beating South Africa 21-20 in a nail-biting final.
The 19-year-old Saracens lock was in his first year at the U20s age group and went into the tournament in New Zealand as England’s BMW Man of the Tournament from the Six Nations after scoring a try in every round. He continued to impress throughout the World Championship but was still shocked to get the chance to lift the trophy at the end.
“It doesn’t feel real at the moment. It feels pretty special,” he said. “It’s something I dreamt of when I heard about the Under 20 Championship and I am so happy.”
Weir has no fear
With wins over the USA and Canada behind them, Scotland travelled south to meet Argentina but looked like they were heading for defeat as they trailed 19-10. However, Grant Gilchrist’s team battled back to trail just 19-18 in the closing stages in Cordoba, then won a penalty.
The clock had ticked past 78 minutes and as Duncan Weir teed up the ball close to the 10m line, and 15m in from touch on the right, the Argentine crowd whistled, bayed and booed to try to put him off.
However, the Scot blocked out all the distractions and doubts and slotted the ball sweetly through the uprights to claim a 21-19 win for his team. The man has nerves of steel.
He is 37 years old and actually retired from rugby in October 2011, but Victor Matfield has rolled back the years on a return to the South Africa side and on Saturday he became the most capped Springbok of all time when he made his 112th Test appearance.
The lock came out of retirement earlier this year to play for the Bulls, having recovered from the knee injury which helped end his career at the end of the last World Cup.
With Jean de Villiers injured, he was then called upon to return to the South Africa team as captain, and he led them to a 2-0 series win over Wales. Matfield might be old, but he is far from a passenger in the Springbok side as he made ten tackles and won ten lineouts during Saturday’s 31-30 victory.
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer said: “When he returned to the game earlier this season, he set his goals on becoming a Springbok yet again and he’s worked extremely hard to get there. I don’t think anyone can doubt that he deserves his place in the team.”
Yes, England lost their Test series in New Zealand 3-0, but the news wasn’t all bad as they ran the hosts close twice and, even in Saturday’s 36-13 defeat, had the character to come back from a truly dreadful first-half display to tie the second half 7-7. Ben Youngs was among the leading lights in that revival and there is no doubt a lot of this England party will be wiser players next season for their experiences on tour.
There was another major plus to come out of their trip – England managed to spend the best part of four weeks in New Zealand without being involved in any kind of off-field scandal. No one was caught staying out late at night, there were no kiss-and-tell stories and no one jumped off a ferry. I’ll drink to that – or maybe I shouldn’t!
England tried a new midfield combination on Saturday, playing Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi in the centre with Freddie Burns at fly-half. Yes, the trio had never played alongside one another in a match before, but their colletive defensive effort was embroiled in such confusion during the first half that it looked like they had never trained as a unit either.
Gaping holes appeared between them and the New Zealanders didn’t need a formal written invitation to gallop through. The shortcomings of the midfield trio caused the wings to drift in, which then exposed gaps out wide.
The fact that Eastmond was replaced by Luther Burrell at half time said it all. England’s rearguard improved a lot after that, although Marland Yarde still missed a tackle on Cory Jane which led to Aaron Smith’s first try.
There is a lot of debate at the moment about which of the four centres – Burrell, Tuilagi, Billy Twelvetrees and Eastmond – should start for England. It is by no means certain that all four will be fit come World Cup time, but if they are then the squad as a whole should be sufficiently well-drilled to mean any one of several combinations can work on match day. That is clearly not the case right now.
It was done with the very best of intentions. Liam Williams saw Cornal Hendricks hurtling down the right wing towards the Wales try-line and his understandable instinct was to try to stop him scoring, as Wales led South Africa 30-24 with a couple of minutes of the game to go. However, it would have been better for Williams if he had concentrated on stopping Hendricks getting close to the posts, rather than trying to take him in to touch, for as the Wales full-back arrived on the scene at full tilt, having made a huge amount of ground, he hit Hendricks in the head with his elbow and gave away a penalty try for an illegal tackle.
That meant Morne Steyn could line up his match-winning conversion from in front of the posts, instead of wide on the right, and he duly put the Boks 31-30 up and they hung on for a victory they didn’t really deserve.
Flip by name…
South African lock Flip van der Merwe lived up to his unusual first name on Saturday when he flipped Alun Wyn Jones’s foot into the air when the Wales second row was already off balance after a lineout. Victor Matfield had challenged for the ball and knocked Jones out of the grasp of one of his lifters, Gethin Jenkins. As he toppled backwards van der Merwe arrived and flipped up his foot with his hand. The South African was quite rightly sin-binned for dangerous play.