A curmudgeon's Rugby World Cup diary: Week three

12:35 pm on 30 July 2019

Opinion - One bad game's a bit disappointing. Two becomes a trend. Welcome to a Curmudgeon's Rugby World Cup diary, where the All Blacks' title defence suddenly looks rather shaky.

Beauden Barrett.

All Blacks fullback Beauden Barrett makes a break during the side's drawn Test match against the Springboks in Wellington. Photo: Photosport

Not too many tomorrows

To go the full Chicken Licken or to treat these Rugby Championship matches as the meaningless friendly games they are? That's a bit of curly one, as retiring equestrian Mark Todd once said.

Let's start by going down the nothing to see here route.

We don't know how big a training load the All Blacks are carrying. Yes, they've been sluggish and inaccurate in their two outings so far but, at least to some extent, that could be by design.

What we do know is that the world and Bledisloe Cups are their stated 2019 priorities, so you could argue it's fairer to purely judge them on those. The All Blacks meet Australia in Perth on 10 August, before the return clash at Eden Park the following Saturday.

Win those games handsomely and people's faith in the team will quickly be restored.

That said, this feels a bit like an old All Blacks team trying to rouse itself one last time. One for whom their best days as individuals - and as a group - might be behind them.

So who's going well?

Beauden Barrett's had two good outings. Yes, he struggles to guide the Adidas ball through the posts, but give him a Gilbert and he goes just fine.

Sevu Reece was lively in Buenos Aires. Ardie Savea and Ngani Laumape too. Hooker Dane Coles and prop Angus Ta'avao have had some useful moments and Jack Goodhue was prominent with the ball against South Africa.

Others, such as Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks have done the workmanlike jobs you'd expect of them.

Richie Mo'unga in action for the All Blacks against the Springboks in Wellington, July 2019.

Richie Mo'unga failed to have the impact he's shown in Super Rugby on Saturday night, according to Hamish Bidwell. Photo: Photosport

Ben Smith? Not so much. Nor Rieko Ioane, who looks a shadow of his former self. Kieran Read's not dissimilar and now we have the question mark hanging over Brodie Retallick.

Blindside flanker remains wide open, not least because Read's said he doesn't fancy a go there. Scott Barrett, when fit, might have been an option, but Retallick's shoulder injury means Barrett's needed at lock.

The bar for second five-eighth Sonny Bill Williams is now set so low that we're praising him for playing 50-odd minutes without hobbling off. Shot, Sonny.

And then there's the who Richie Mo'unga/Beauden Barrett thing.

A shame

Mo'unga was adequate in Wellington. No better.

Barrett, meanwhile, was about the best All Black of a pretty average lot. He seemed the team's most likely source of a line break and was sound defensively too.

That was disappointing, in a way, because it reinforced the idea he might be the best fullback option. With Ben Smith seemingly ageing before our eyes, Jordie Barrett not in career-best form, nor Rieko Ioane, the back-three isn't the area of strength it has been.

Reece and George Bridge are rookies but the dynamism and work rate of Reece, in particular, almost looks as if it might be essential.

Sevu Reece

Sevu Reece may make his way into the All Blacks' World Cup squad on the form of others, Hamish Bidwell believes. Photo: Photosport

The longer Saturday's 16-16 draw with South Africa went on, the more Beauden Barrett became the dominant playmaker. That's natural. He's the established No.10 and this is his team.

But if Mo'unga is a genuine option there, and not just a fill in who'll primarily bide his time on the bench, then he needs to quickly assert some authority.

Beauden Barrett remains the best first five-eighth; it's just that he might be the best fullback as well.

The breakdown

The tackled ball area is a shambles right now. Guys from all teams are cheating, defence lines are creeping up offside and fluent back play looks borderline impossible.

We hate overbearing referees and no-one wants to see the Rugby World Cup decided by a dubious penalty, but all of The Rugby Championship sides are struggling to string any decent passages of play together because of how hard it is to recycle ball quickly and to bend or break the fast-advancing defence lines.

If the refs won't police those areas, then it could be a rather dour world cup.

As for the others

South Africa look a decent team. We knew that already, but their status as a very real Rugby World Cup title threat has only been enhanced by their win over Australia and draw with New Zealand.

The Wallabies will be buoyed by the 16-10 victory over Argentina, but they're really not very good. If the All Blacks don't annihilate them in one or both of the Bledisloe games, then it really might be panic stations.

As for the Pumas, you'd never fault their effort, but they don't appear to have the skill levels to seriously stretch, let alone beat, the better teams.

Overall, it's fair to say it's been a pretty dull start to the international season.

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