Given everything else that’s going on at present, it was no surprise when the return of international rugby appeared to go almost unnoticed 10 days ago with the renewal of hostilities between two great trans-Tasman rivals.
A new coaching broom was launched down under when Ian Foster and Dave Rennie presided over New Zealand and Australia for the first time as new head coaches in the first of a four-Test Bledisloe Cup series to be played out between now and December.
The international game is in turmoil at present. Confirmation that South Africa has pulled out of this seasons delayed Rugby Championship, rescheduled to take place entirely in Australia in November and December, has all but finished the SANZAAR alliance that was responsible for the game going professional after the 1995 World Cup.
The Springboks now face the prospect of going 20 months without an international prior to the visit of the Lions next July, if that tour survives the pandemic.
That must also be under threat right now given that both parties agree it would be impossible to be financially viable without the thousands of Lions supporters who would otherwise make the trek and pay handsomely to attend the Test series.
Quite where South Africa’s withdrawal leaves rugby south of the equator is a moot question. SA rugby is citing the pandemic and travel restrictions within their own country as the reason for pulling out of the Rugby Championship but Rassie Erasmus and new head coach Jacques Nienaber have made it very clear that, with domestic rugby only starting two weeks ago, their players are in no condition to face the rigours of playing Test rugby.
The fact that so many of the Springbok squad currently ply their trade in Ireland, England, France, and Japan only added to the challenge of keeping their squad virus-free.
On top of this, relations between New Zealand and Australia have never been at such a low ebb, with the Kiwis looking to dictate how many Australian teams should be allowed participate in a revamped Super Rugby tournament already devoid of the four strongest South African sides set to make up a new Guinness PRO16 tournament from January onwards.
That is why the Wallabies took so much pleasure in holding their hosts to a 16-16 draw in a remarkable Test played in Wellington 10 days ago.
Former Glasgow Warriors coach Rennie, born in Lower Hut only 15km down the road from the Westpac Stadium, was within the width of the upright to leading the Wallabies to a first win over their great rivals on New Zealand soil since 2000. Unfortunately, Reece Hodge’s 54-metre penalty, two minutes into injury time, cannoned off the post.
What a start that would have been for Rennie. As usually happens against New Zealand, you only get one chance.
Last weekend, they were back in Eden Park where the All Blacks hadn’t lost a Test since the French overturned them 20-23 back in 1994. The result, a more predictable 27-7 win, disguises the fact that Rennie has already had a big impact on the way Australia play, with several newcomers offered their chance to shine.
That said, the star of the show was 21-year old Auckland Blues winger Caleb Clarke, son of former All Black centre Eroni. He was sensational with his ability to break tackles, generate huge forward momentum, and offload in traffic, causing havoc for the Wallabies.
The most interesting aspect of the two Tests to date was the speed with which both sides hit the ground running, despite such a long absence from the international arena, dating back to the World Cup in Japan. The big question now is, will Ireland be able to do likewise next Saturday?
Last weekend marked a year to the weekend Ireland exited the World Cup, once again, at the quarter-final stage. Since then, unlike their southern hemisphere counterparts, Ireland managed to play the opening three games of the 2020 Six Nations Championship before the pandemic took hold.
Joe Schmidt’s replacement Andy Farrell is now a year in the job but has had very little opportunity to really stamp his mark on how he wants Ireland to play.
He enjoyed opening wins over Scotland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium before what was always going to be a challenging trip to Twickenham against the World Cup finalists.
I did suggest to Warren Gatland one time that, given the long stretch between tournaments and tours, being an international coach was a brilliant job only for the matches. Farrell’s enforced break has been longer than most but that last outing — the painful 24-12 defeat to England — felt far more comprehensive at the time than the final score suggested.
It has left him with a lot of time to think and tweak the way he wants his Irish team to perform.
The squad Farrell announced last week suggests he is ready to move on and look seriously at a crop of new talent that has emerged on the domestic front since the decisive 46-14 quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Yokohama.
If Covid-19 served to force Johann van Graan’s hand against Edinburgh last time out, then a worrying sequence of injuries, coupled with the suspension of Ulster captain Iain Henderson after he was sent off against Ospreys recently, has now served to alter Farrell’s thought process.
New Zealand and Australia have always been quick to promote youth, and that isn’t confined to outside-backs. Rennie had no hesitation in promoting 20-year old Queensland Reds back row Harry Wilson over the last two weekends for his international debut.
The fact that it was away from home against the All Blacks didn’t faze him in any way. Wilson rewarded him with two outstanding performances.
Likewise Foster, admittedly facing a second-row crisis — with Brodie Retallick exiled in Japan, Sam Whitlock ruled out with concussion, and Scott Barrett not having played since June — promoted another 20-year old in Tupou Vaa’i to start alongside Auckland Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu.
Vaa'i too made his mark before being replaced by Barrett.
It would have been interesting to see if Farrell opted to select 21-year old Leinster second row Ryan Baird for his international debut against Italy next Saturday in the absence of Henderson.
Unfortunately, he has been ruled out with an adductor injury. I viewed this game as the perfect opportunity to promote Baird for his international debut on the back of his sensational form this year.
Leinster have an outstanding second-row partnership in the making in Baird and James Ryan to build their pack around for years to come, and it’s only a matter of time before they line out together for their country.
Ireland must face up to the fact that we don’t have the monstrous front-five forwards that South Africa, France, and England regularly use to bludgeon us. What we do have is an emerging core of athletic, intelligent, and skillful players like Baird, Ronan Kelleher, and Caelan Doris that enable us to play in a different way.
Elsewhere in selection, the next few weeks offer a chance for the likes of Will Connors, Hugo Keenan, Shane Daly, Jamison Gibson-Park, and the newly qualified James Lowe to showcase their ability to play at the next level.
Having been starved of opportunities to really stamp his character and style on this Irish squad, Farrell now faces into a demanding seven-week period of activity with six Tests against opponents of varying strengths to demonstrate what he is all about.
He has waited longer than most but must now use this extended window productively.