The Crusaders powered their way to a 33-16 win over the Hurricanes and affirmed, beyond the obvious fact of them being a class above, that the presence of a pack is the defining factor at rugby’s highest levels, writes Oliver Keohane.
Every school had their one enormous centre or wing, or untouchable stepper of a fullback who they could rely on to win them games. In the professional arena these backline beasts are rendered largely ineffective when the men up front are unable to feed them the quality of ball needed to make magic.
New Zealand rugby is a pleasure to watch. It is ambitious, smooth, skilful and speedy. But it has been played mainly among sides who offer equal lack of physical presence and set-piece power among their forwards. The Crusaders, who I wrote last week will undoubtedly follow the same path as in 2020 to secure the Super Rugby Aotearoa title, are the only New Zealand Super Rugby side with a cohesive and physically dominant pack (outside of the Blues…perhaps). No coincidence that they lost only two games in 2020, and have pumped both their opponents in the opening two rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021.
The Blues offer the converse situation, where for nearly two decades they have had arguably the best individual backline players in New Zealand (and the world) traipse in and out of their teams, but have continuously failed to deliver on the promise of that quality due to a lack of investment in eight particular positions, and most imporantly the tight five, who determine the conditions upon which a game of rugby can be played.
And that is essentially the impact of a pack. The battle upfront determines the speed of the game, the quality of the ball, the threat of the set piece and lays the defensive foundations. When teams win through backline brilliance without forward dominance it is a victory in spite of, and the exception rather than the rule.
I understand that the cries for improved quality in South African rugby are large and wide, but we must take cognisance of the immovable nature of every one of our local packs week in and week out, who dictate a game that can only be played slowly and physically in cancelling each other out at every ruck, scrum and lineout. I am not for one minute saying that South Africans do not need to emphasise a movement towards ironing out ball in hand, backline play – but if we have a strength that is so clearly lacking in a country that for the past twenty years has been the best rugby playing nation in the world, why is there not a greater emphasis on capitalising on that?
The All Blacks are vulnerable this year. They do not have forwards, they do not have depth in their forwards, and many players from the pack that is producing powerful performances, The Crusaders, have not been given an All Black look in.
Watch the Crusaders dominate the rest of Super Rugby Aotearoa off the back of their pack, and watch the All Blacks falter internationally because of a lack of a pack.
Watch: Super Rugby Aotearoa | Crusaders v Hurricanes – Rd 2 Highlights