Southern hemisphere set the standard
June 11, 2012
New Zealand's Julian Savea left Ireland in his wake at Eden Park in Auckland © Getty Images
Scotland may have drawn first blood but there can be little doubt that the southern hemisphere remain the dominant force in Test match rugby after a thrilling opening week of international clashes.
Story of the Game
The action got underway in Newcastle on Tuesday night where Australia played host to the Scots. Lashing wind and rain greeted the sides and as a result the game suffered as a spectacle but the record books will not note the elements - just an historic 9-6 victory for the tourists. Unsurprisingly the error-laden match turned into a kicking duel with Scotland's Greig Laidlaw booting his side to a much-needed win that was sealed with a stoppage time penalty. "It is phenomenal," said Scotland skipper Ross Ford after his side snapped a seven-game losing streak with their first win in Australia since 1982. "To beat a team like Australia away from home is a great morale-booster."
It was thought that Scotland's stunning upset could set the tone for the feast of top-class rugby set to follow but those hopes were dashed in Auckland on Saturday night when the All Blacks kicked off their tenure as world champions with a crushing 42-10 victory over Ireland. Unlike the Scots, Ireland had embarked on their tour confident of upsetting the odds and recording a first-ever victory over their hosts but they were handed a stark reminder that they remain someway from achieving that feat.
A fresh-looking All Blacks side, with a new face at the helm in head coach Steve Hansen, blew the Irish away with a devastating blend of pace and power despite having only come together as a squad the previous weekend. The home side's tormentor-in-chief was winger Julian Savea who enjoyed a Test debut to remember with a hat-trick of tries that drew immediate comparisons with his predecessor Jonah Lomu. Ireland struggled to contain the likes of Savea and fullback Israel Dagg with Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll painfully aware of his side's shortcomings. "When they're playing that way they're difficult to defend against, and we we're chasing shadows a bit," he said after his side slumped to a five-tries-to-one defeat that spells danger for the remaining two Tests.
If Ireland had hopes for a first Test win, then Wales had good reason to aim even higher having powered to a Six Nations Grand Slam earlier this year. A series victory will have been in their sights ahead of kick off against Australia in Brisbane on Saturday and while that is still possible they will be playing catch-up rugby having slipped to a 27-19 loss at the Suncorp Stadium. The Wallabies were far from the fragile outfit many had expected following their shock defeat to Scotland a few days earlier and with scrum-half Will Genia pulling the strings in an outstanding individual display they swiftly bounced back to winning ways.
For Wales, it was an all too familiar story as another golden opportunity to claim a major southern hemisphere scalp slipped from their grasp. Uncharacteristic errors and a lack of a clinical edge cost the tourists their first victory over Australia on their own patch since 1969. "All the chances we created in the second half, compared to the first half performance, caused Australia some problems. But we just didn't take enough of our opportunities," rued caretaker boss Rob Howley.
The focus then switched to Durban where South Africa rolled out the welcome mat to England. The pressure was on the hosts with new coach Heyneke Meyer and his side coming under increasing scrutiny. That fact was not lost on the Boks' boss but he was defiant ahead of kick off, declaring: "You put charcoal under pressure you get diamonds".
England were looking to break a seven-game losing run against the Boks and many fancied their chances of recording a rare win on South African soil especially with the game taking place at sea-level, as opposed to altitude, and the home side having only come together the previous week. A predictable bruising battle played out and while it may have lacked the pace and precision of some of the earlier action, South Africa still had too much class for England and eventually muscled their way to a 22-17 victory at Kings Park.
England's Brad Barritt receives treatment for an eye injury during his side's bruising clash with South Africa in Durban © Getty Images
England coach Stuart Lancaster will survey the damage in the coming days with injuries to centre Brad Barritt and fullback Mike Brown likely to force a change in approach ahead of the second Test and he was quick to re-focus on that clash in Johannesburg. "The critical area for us to work on is that third quarter where the Springboks controlled the game well and scored their two tries," he said.
The 'clean sweep' was completed in San Juan in Argentina in the final clash of the day where a relatively inexperienced Pumas side accounted for Italy with a 37-22 victory. Stripped of many of their big names, rested ahead of greater challenges in the coming weeks and months, the home side relied heavily on the experience of the likes of prop Rodrigo Roncero and centre Felipe Contepomi with the latter surpassing the great Hugo Porta in the Pumas' all-time points list with a 22-point haul. Their reward is a two-Test series with France who enter the equation this weekend starting in Cordoba.
There will be little time for England and Wales to pick through the pieces of their defeats with mid-week clashes against the South African Barbarians and the Brumbies respectively scheduled for the coming days. Then the build-up to the second round of inter-hemisphere clashes will intensify as will the pressure to perform.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.