South Africa and Australia came close to producing a new version of rugby on Saturday in Pretoria.
It was intrinsically rugby 7s played with 15 men a side, an interesting hybrid which, alas, I don’t think has a future. Neither, for that matter, does either of these teams if they continue to play the game in such a dumb fashion.
Yes, it was entertaining enough if you just want the vicarious pleasure of watching players dive over the whitewash. But for any serious observers of the game it was close to a joke at times. 'Surreal' was how one leading world rugby official called it, and he was right on the money.
Not to put too fine a point on it, it was a kind of rugby diarrhoea. Tries spewed out at regular intervals, with no-one on the field apparently able to control the flow.
There were nine tries scored and only some desperate, scrambling defence by both teams prevented that number being doubled.
Back in New Zealand, there must have been expressions of bemusement mixed with humour on the faces of the All Blacks players and coaches. For this was a game that told us exactly why New Zealand are already home and hosed as 2010 Tri-Nations Champions, not to mention Bledisloe Cup holders yet again.
All the structure, authority and composure the All Blacks have brought to the international game this year, even while playing an open, attacking game, was missing in Pretoria. We had the farcical situation of Australia leading 14-0 after just four minutes, 21-7 after 11 minutes and then 28-17.
Yet all the while, Robbie Deans’ side never had control of the game. At times, it exactly mirrored Sevens – one side scored, the re-start went to the opposition and they scored. Six tries were scored in the first half alone yet of that tally, four were down to gross defensive errors and a fifth came from a forward pass.
Bryan Habana dropped a simple re-start kick and then missed James O'Connor on the outside for one try; Kurtley Beale made the 'Boks defensive line look about as mobile as the Maginot Line with a few sidesteps to open them up, leading to O'Connor's first try and, at the other end, the defence parted like the Red Sea to allow the impressive Juan Smith to steam through to score for South Africa.
That summed up the game, really. Unforced errors lay all over the field, like corpses on a battlefield. Technically, it was pretty lamentable and merely served to confirm New Zealand’s overwhelming technical superiority in their rugby this year.
South Africa won in the end chiefly because of their traditional line-out excellence at critical moments in the crucial final quarter. Leading 34-31 with the game finely balanced, the Springboks seized two vital Wallaby line-out throws which stole away potentially vital attacking platforms deep in the 'Boks 22, from the attacking Australians. Victor Matfield, on his 100th Test cap appearance, reminded us of his timeless ability and those around him deserved praise, too.
Even worse for Deans’ side, they then butchered two simple tries which were there for the taking had their players simply made the ball do the work by taking out opponents with passes. Instead, mindless shifting of the pill across field which allowed the defensive line to drift ruined at least two scores.
Another was saved when impressive half-back Francois Hougaard got across to smash Adam Ashley-Cooper in the tackle, forcing him to spill the ball rather than walk it in over the line.
Australia couldn’t come back after that glut of missed scoring opportunities. But their decision making was awry in the final quarter too, when they turned down kickable penalties for punts into the corner. Their faith in hooker Saia Faingaa’s line-out throws was misplaced.
There was none of the precision or clinical execution we had become accustomed to seeing from the All Blacks this season. Literally, they are in a class of their own on this evidence.
It was helter-skelter type rugby with desperation written all over two ordinary teams. No-one ever really got a grip on the game with some proper structured rugby.
So yes, for the casual observer, it was undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing and a real adrenalin thrill. But don’t believe that all South Africans were fooled. The vast swathes of empty seats in Pretoria, heartland of the South African game, told you plenty about what knowledgeable South Africans think of the present state of their side.
As for the Australians, unless they turn the tables by winning in Bloemfontein this coming Saturday, they look in an even worse state.