Looking back at New Zealand v Wales, Australia v England, and South Africa v Ireland, The Loose Head takes a quick look at what we learned:
1. Wales can turn it on when they want. When the Welsh boys kept ball in hand, the All Blacks found it hard to live with them for an hour. Williams and North, most noticeably, made hay when offered a chance to run. Perhaps a tactic that should be kept for the series?
2. Liam Williams will no longer be a back-up to Leigh Halfpenny. The Toulon player is going to find it very difficult to get a starting berth ahead of Williams who put his stamp on the game yesterday. He made a couple of mistakes, but a shining light for Wales. Easily their Man of the Match.
3. Taulupe Faletau is dining at the same table as Read, Pocock and Vunipola. He was incredible yesterday. His work rate was second to none and was up there with Williams as Wales’ top performer. Special mention to Gethin Jenkins who was also immense.
4. A New Zealand team in transition is still the best team in the world. They couldn’t get into the game in the first half and lacked structure, with Julian Savea having a game to forget. But in the second half, they found their composure and blew Wales away. Slow to start, but still quick to put the opposition away.
5. Aaron Smith is the best 9 in world rugby. He ran support lines, kept his forwards moving, and was his all-round brilliant self. The honour of leading the haka was well deserved. He seems to love his team more than anyone, and dropped to his knees to celebrate when Naholo crossed the whitewash.
6. Julian Savea and Dane Coles are mortals. Although Savea scored, it was a day to forget for the winger, and Coles made uncharacteristic mistakes throughout the game too. Not saying they won’t bounce back, but rare to see them suffer poor performances.
7. England are probably the second best team in the world right now. Australia blew them away in the opening 20 minutes, but England held on and took their points when they were on offer. The English pack eventually got into the game and spoiled breakdowns, scrums, and mauls, scrums against a pack who demolished them in the World Cup last year.
8. Eddie Jones is not afraid to admit to his mistakes. Luther Burrell was shipped off in the first half to make way for George Ford, and that made a huge difference to England’s playmaking and backline. Farrell is well versed in the 12 role, and England continued to grow more dominant.
9. We still don’t know what Eddie Jones is thinking. A number of people, myself included, find it hard to understand why Alex Goode wasn’t in the starting XV, let alone the squad. Also, the selection of Yarde ahead of Nowell is also difficult to understand. But then again, England won, Yarde scored, and Mike Brown had a solid game bar a couple of mistakes. His thinking is justified.
10. Samu Kerevi was born for Test rugby. The Fijian born had a fantastic debut, and didn’t look uncomfortable in the Test arena. A star for the future.
11. Michael Hooper is the best number 7 in the world. He scored two tries, with one highlighting his pace down the wing and composure to finish. He took the captain’s armband in the 57th minute, and scored in the 58th. He is a leader, and it’s amazing to think he’s still only 24.
12. Micheal Cheika will have a lot of work to do before Australia’s next meeting with England. The Wallabies went 10-0 ahead after 17 minutes, but slowly faded out of the game. Pocock suffered a fractured eye-socket, and will be a big loss to the Australians.
13. Based on yesterday’s performance, South Africa are not the force they once were. The Boks weren’t helped with the early loss of Pat Lambie, but bar Mvovo and flashes from Le Roux, their backline showed little creativity. At one stage, before making way for Jesse Kriel, Lionel Mapoe looked perplexed at the lack of line breaks the Boks’ backs were making.
14. Jesse Kriel needs to start the next test. The Bulls man is a big, physical, dynamic player and offers a better attacking option than the centres of De Allende or Mapoe. Whatever the reasons for benching him for the first Test, he needs to start.
15. Eben Etzebeth relishes the physicality of the Springboks. Early in the game, he dove across a ruck to get to Stander. Later, he entered a ruck and blasted Jamie Heaslip. He constantly winds up his opposition, and holds no fear for his own safety. Made a number of mistakes late in the game, but one of the Springboks’ best assets.
16. Paddy Jackson showed the world what he is capable of. I campaigned for the Six Nations tournament for Jackson to be involved, and feel totally vindicated due to his performance. He was cool under pressure, and when the points were on offer, he told his captain he wanted to kick for goal. Ireland’s effort can be epitomised through Jackson, when in the 78th minute, he ripped the ball from Springbok number 8, Duane Vermeulen, in the tackle.
17. Andy Farrell has clearly made an impact on the Ireland team. Defence wins matches, and the first Test was a prime example. South Africa failed to score before half-time when Ireland were down to 13 men. Additionally, their first try should have been disallowed and their second came from an Irish lapse in concentration. The Irish defence will only continue to improve throughout the series. Henderson, Mike Ross, et al, were fantastic.
18. Jared Payne should continue to play at fullback for club and country. He only had to make two tackles but he aligned and marshalled his troops, and was sublime in attack, picking superb lines and making superb offloads. He is the best 15 in Ireland.
19. Mathieu Raynal is not an international standard referee. He awarded a red card which nearly spoiled the game, went to the TMO every second occasion, and made poor calls for both sides throughout the game.
20. Special mention to the Ireland U20 team who beat New Zealand U20 yesterday in what was a thrilling game.