RUGGAWORLD EXCLUSIVE: In a first (and hopefully not the last) South African exclusive we invite all our readers to join us as one of New Zealand’s best and most entertaining rugby commentators and Sky Sports journo’s, Scotty ‘Sumo’ Stevenson takes us on a journey through his mind and gives us his ‘unique’ views on this year’s Tri Nations.
‘Sumo’ is a Sky Sports New Zealand television commentator and writer for Sky Sports Magazine (where this article will appear in this month’s issue not available in South Africa) and has kindly agreed for RuggaWorld.com to publish the following article.
They came in waves of a green so nauseating it would make Luke Watson ill. They swarmed on the ball like tweenies on Bieber. They called lineouts in a foreign tongue, and played on with broken ribs. They were authoritarian, or were they totalitarian? They were fearless, yet not reckless; dogged but not dogged – a distinction best spoken aloud – and their bite was as bad as their bark. Yes, they had wound back the clock, those Springboks of 2009. They had reached into a timelord’s satchel and grasped their missing mojo. Not even Hamilton scared them anymore!
Then they stole the All Blacks’ trophy.
Well, actually, the Springboks didn’t so much steal the tri-nations title as receive it after the fact – the real crime having been an organised one in which (it has been alleged) the rules of the game had been stuffed into duffel bags and snakeskin briefcases and thrown into a suspicious looking van with rose-tinted windows and the license plate ELV. (The van was later found, burnt out.)
Now let’s not come over all revisionist here and suggest the Springboks didn’t deserve to be crowned champions, for they most assuredly did. It was a mantle custom-made for Matfield, Smelted for Smit and forged for Fourie. However, history has a habit of unmasking the charlatans and highlighting heresy.
2009 will be the season most remembered for an attempted coup whereby the leaders, armed only with a penchant for regress and an introvert’s inclination installed (albeit briefly) the sort of risk-averse rugby New Zealanders (and Australians) had neither the appetite nor aptitude for. The fact that South African rugby flourished under the ELV system was perhaps more indicative of a cultural conservatism than a permanent hemispheric power shift.
Fast forward. May 2010. The Bulls win the Super 14 by defeating The Stormers, and an argument, heretofore sure to find support, flies out a window.
How on earth did that happen? The last five paragraphs had been constructed under carefully controlled conditions. They had been fact checked and supported with metaphor only to run headlong into a cliché: the fly in the ointment…
“It’s time to win some silverware!” Boomed a man with a possum on his head. Across town a Dingo agreed: It was time to steal New Zealand’s baby. The Dingo, having befriended a caravan of wandering gypsies and dressed them in yellow, had a bead on the Bledisloe, and that was just for starters. This was a creature prepared to take risks (he said so!), to attack, to laugh in the face of conservatism. But had the dingo not cried wolf before?
Eight long years have Australians been waiting to call themselves tri-nations champions. It is as unfathomable as the plot of ‘Lost’ to think the Wallabies have not held aloft that symbol of southern dominance since 2001. And yet it is fact, and must be accepted as such.
Australian fans, threatening to lose faith in their rugby side and head for the other side of the tracks, have forced a rethink. Mad scientists, loyal to the cause, have been busy in workshops and laboratories, fiendishly working through autumn nights by the dim but pleasantly scented light of a eucalyptus lamp, and the dim but pleasantly comforting lyrics of Bon Jovi. Indoctrination is underway! Common enemies have been established! The people shall have their trophies!
The experiments have, so far this year, been working for the Dingo. The Brumbies, the Reds, the Tahs – all so close! But are they really experiments or are they the sinister spells of a conjurer? Can we really be sure Quade Cooper has what it takes to lead a champion team around the pitch? Were the Waratahs anything other than adequate? Were the Brumbies due a re-piling job on their crumbling foundations?
They arrived by a busload. 27 of them in total, all told to express themselves. “We’ve been picked for a reason,” they said, and then they showed us what that was. Ireland stood no chance against this sort of skill. Ireland flapped while the All Blacks danced. It was a sign of things to come thought the optimistic fan. He was outnumbered in the grand stand.
Four out of four against Australia, none out of three against South Africa. That was the state of 2009 for the All Blacks, and no great crusade through Europe or emphatic victory in the intervening months against a lesser mortal will have made a jot of difference to the pecking order.
“We want to play a style of rugby the fans enjoy,” he stated matter-of-factly. He’d been here before, in the pump and under the gun, or vice versa. He knew what it was like to feel a bit of heat and he was not leaving the kitchen. He was cooking up the cordon bleu from a limited list of available ingredients and he would leave it in the fridge overnight. Revenge was a dish best served cold. Graham Henry’s recipes had resulted in four titles before, why not a fifth? Sure it would take a bit of testing, but that’s what June is for.
He would substitute a Stanley for a Nonu, a Dagg for a Muliaina (green, maybe, but what zing!), a Whitelock for a Donnelly (already a variation on the traditional Williams), and a De Malmanche for a Hore. He would have to work with un-trialled tools. He had not used a Cruden before, or for that matter a Vito, but he had heard good things. He would have to ensure he could at least start with a familiar base, and sure enough those particular products were still in stock.
There had been a clamouring from the floor when items had gone missing from the menu but with the first sampling of Henry’s latest offering it would seem the din over dinner had quieted somewhat. But would it stay that way? They were finicky and fussy customers, those who dined out on the All Blacks. A full liquor cabinet could not make up for an empty trophy one…
Percentages: They count for something. For The Bulls this year, as it was for the Springboks last year, knowing when to hold and when to fold proved to be the greatest asset on a rugby field. Well, that, and an ability to dominate the opposition, mentally and physically.
If the Bulls under Matfield have become the high-octane fuel powering South African rugby, Peter de Villiers is its turbo charger. The diminutive coach has kept the big engine firing, flaring it up when that short burst of extra pace is required. An oratorical curio, de Villiers’ headline grabbing press conferences have been derided, but his results against the only team that really counts have done all the real talking.
What the Springboks will bring into this year’s tri-nations, above all else, is confidence. For so long the famous spring in the springbok step had been missing (just two tri-nations titles in 13 years of trying) but last year the spring became a swagger, and a saunter, and a strut, and a shuffle. There was murder on the dancefloor.
Where did that confidence come from? Did it rain down from the heavens: a benediction from a benevolent God? It is true the faith is strong in the Springbok side but this is no divine intervention. Did it come from the Bulls, an inner party mentality that condones no doubting mind? Certainly Matfield and others have a major role to play in the national side, but no self-respecting Springbok would acquiesce to the teachings of one provincial team, no matter how successful they had proven to be.
No, this is a confidence afforded by the opposition. Faith and the success of the Bulls (and latterly the Stormers) have helped, but ultimately, the Springboks have been allowed to recapture their mythology, a mythology that had somehow gone missing with the onslaught of professional rugby. Now there is genuine fear in the opposition! Children are once again being scared to sleep with stories of marauding Boer forwards, and what lies beneath at ruck time. Fear: that is the greatest weapon of all, notwithstanding Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon, and Jacques Fourie.
Salvation: While the South African side has every right to stride into edition 15 of the tri-nations with a favourite tag around every neck, they will have to start in New Zealand and go three on the bounce before heading home. This may sound like a breeze after victories in Perth and Hamilton last year, but then the tails were already up – there were points on the board and high fives flying around.
What say they now? On the back of two tests against a woeful Italy and a win over a holiday mode France, they will be thrust into Eden Park against one of the most exciting All Blacks teams in recent years. It will be a top five test match, in history, ever. This will either be the permanent changing of the guard or the resumption of normal service. This will be where risk is either beaten out of the game, or allowed to greet the dawn of a brave new era of rugby. In other words, there are ideologies at play here, but this war is anything but cold!
New Zealand has shown a willingness to attack at all costs throughout June but trenches are being dug, range is being calculated, McCaw is whispering silent prayers (echoed in the stands and in living rooms) for an injury-free season. The All Blacks will shelve infantry for aerial bombardment if push is met with shove. Familiar faces will return to the fold. There will be something bloody-minded about the world’s most famous team. They want their trophy back.
And meanwhile that man with a possum on his head will demand results from the Wallabies. Genia, Cooper, Barnes, Ioane, Mitchell, Ashley-Cooper, Mortlock: there is too much class in their double digits for Australia to be held down for long. Fans may believe this tournament is once again all about South Africa and New Zealand but sources inside the All Blacks camp have revealed Henry, Smith and Hansen have more to worry about from the Wallabies than from the Springboks.
Consider the performance of the Australian sides in this year’s Super 14. With the obvious and natural exception of the Force, Australian sides, pound for pound achieved more than New Zealand’s. That analysis may not hold up to international scrutiny, but suddenly Deans has a few more cattle to work with, even if he’s sent a few to the works.
Ultimately this tournament will be won with balance. All three sides have unleashed a new breed of raw and exciting players: the Aplons and de Jonghs, the Genias and the Coopers, the Daggs and the Janes. All three sides have their enforcers: the Elsoms and the Thorns and the Matfields. All three sides have their freaks: Spies and Steyn, McCaw and Carter, Barnes and Ioane. But, and this is the biggie, which side has all three elements in just the right quantities.
On paper the best balance can be found in South Africa – set piece majesty meets pace and power – but when the All Blacks are leaving Tialata, Thompson, Guildford, and Gear in the cold, suddenly a lack of depth looks like a deep end. No other side can offer the same sort of impact in any selected 22, certainly not Australia.
So onward into July we go. The world champion Springboks, dominators of the southern hemisphere, retrofitted recipients of old time myth and legend; the All Blacks, stung by last year’s defeat, vanquished by the Boks at home and spat out by them abroad; the Wallabies, pretenders to the throne but toiling undeterred under the steely gaze of a trickster and master manipulator. It’s good versus evil versus down right nasty.
And that’s just the way we like it.