Did you watch any rugby over the weekend? I watched the Lions’ brave effort in Dunedin and the European Final from Bilbao. Two gripping but very different games. First, how great it was to see Pat Lambie start with such confidence, and then how sad to see him injure his knee so early and end his season. At least it wasn’t the dreaded concussion and, let’s not forget, he is only 27. I remember interviewing him at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and laughing, when at one stage he mused back to “when he was still young”! At the time he looked about fifteen and his Bok blazer looked like a school uniform. Don’t write him off just yet but it narrows Rassie’s choice by one. Who would you go for at ten?
The European Final was a war of attrition played in wet conditions and Leinster just about deserved their record equalling fourth success in the competition. Despite Racing going ahead 12-9 with nine minutes to go, the Dublin side never panicked and won it the hard way. Sadly Gary Ringrose and Jordan Larmour, two creative and talented backs, never had a sniff in attack and Racing did their level best to slow down things at the breakdown and to kick from nine. You play the ref on the day don’t you? The great sides can win easy or hard but they almost always win and always win Finals.
I have heard rumblings that all is not quite as happy as it looks in Irish rugby, behind the scenes, but that there is a conveyor belt of young talent coming through is beyond doubt. The level of mobility and athleticism up front, evidenced by young James Ryan, reminds one of the great days of South African rugby. Grand Slam winners and now European champs? Ireland under Joe Schmidt must be contenders for Japan. Oh how things have changed.
After fifteen minutes in Dunedin the Lions looked like they were in for a hammering. They were trying to up the tempo but basic errors in attack and defence abounded. It was almost pathetic at the start I’m sad to say. At one stage they were 19-3 down and one feared a massacre. In fairness to the Gauteng side they got their defence right and got back into the game. At one stage they looked fluid and comfortable in attack as well but they are not the side of old. At least not yet. To play high tempo rugby you have to do it often until it is part of your DNA. Confidence, bordering on but not becoming arrogance, is the result of this and that is when you are at the top. You can always close it down and play tough if you have to. Look at Leinster. You can turn the expansive taps off with ease but turning them on, if you are not used to it, is much harder. The big question now is will the Lions be able to get back to their best when they return home? I hope so. They must not retreat but press on.
The saddest thing for me are the small crowds at Super Rugby these days. To hear the commentators saying that the crowd is good when the stadiums are less than half full is worrying. As the crowds here decrease in number, they seem to be getting bigger in Europe. Ok, there is a massive population there but, in years gone by, the situation was reversed. We used to fill stadiums for big Currie Cup games for goodness sake. Has television killed the Golden Goose or is it that we are no longer one of the giants in the game? It is interesting to hear rumours that we might hitch our rugby wagon to Europe and ditch Super Rugby and SANZAAR. After the positive comments from the Cheetahs and Kings you can imagine the money men licking their lips at the prospects of Euros and Pounds over Aussie and Kiwi Dollars. Is the decision to be based purely on money or on improving our rugby standards? That is the question.
For all the massive improvements in European Rugby I still feel that New Zealand is far ahead of the rest. I would back their Super Rugby sides to dominate the European Cup if they were to compete. We simply have to revolutionise our approach and, in time, get our attacking skills up to their standard. We have the raw materials but lack the philosophy at junior level. I will be watching the Junior World Cup with great interest to see if we have a sea change taking place. The warm up results have been promising.
The money or the box for SA Rugby? To improve attacking standards you have to stay in SANZAAR and the Southern Hemisphere. However I do not have to pay the bills. Maybe a unique and creative compromise is possible? Maybe a rotation of our sides to give them spells in each? That would be interesting.