Holy moly, the Wallabies have won a series! But how now can they capitalise on their growing momentum and soaring confidence without a game for the next three weeks?
This is, of course, the first full season in which the move of the mid-year internationals to July has fully taken effect. Last year was COVID, and 2019 was a World Cup year. But back in 2018, we played the June internationals and then went back and finished Super Rugby.
And yes, the June Tests were a bit of a buzzkill for the domestic comp, and yes, it certainly did kill off momentum for finals-bound teams. But it kept players playing.
Three years later, we’ve just been reminded of the big problem we face with almost a month before the first Bledisloe Test and then onto the Rugby Championship.
Thankfully, from a fan’s perspective, there’s hugely anticipated little series to sink our teeth into…
Question 1: South Africa will be fine, obviously, but how do the Wallabies, All Blacks, and even Los Pumas maintain form and momentum now with no games for the next few weeks? And who serves to lose the most from this mid-season break while we all watch the Lions series?
Fitness will be the coin of the realm.
As the Pumas proved last year, the one thing you have almost total control over is squad fitness, peak personal power lift records, nutrition, and the confidence that level of health gives you. The Wallabies have shown heart and team spirit.
The All Blacks have demonstrated clearly Australia will need more than that. France is talked up, but they seldom win three to four Tests straight when they have to.
The All Blacks do it all the time. The Wallabies must match their fitness.
Will South Africa be fine though?
A draining series against the Lions followed by a long flight over may prove detrimental, but at least they will be close to the 500 minutes this time around.
As for the rest period, a few games of touch will be fine; worked for me playing colts.
In all seriousness, it must be a challenge but with today’s fitness standards, they are all probably looking forward to a few weeks off for fine tuning and won’t be too bothered, I would imagine.
I was leaning towards the Wallabies losing the most, a tight series win, boost in confidence and all that but now I can’t help but wonder if it is in fact the All Blacks that stand to lose the most?
After three games they chopped and changed a bit and have given no real time to developing their combinations and cohesion, as opposed to the Wallabies who have utilised a consistently selected side through a demanding three Tests and will, perhaps, be better off for it come Bledisloe.
It would not surprise to see a clunky All Blacks performance first up. As for the Pumas, they demonstrated clearly that they need little to no prep time last year before they beat the All Blacks so my bet would be they will be the least affected and of all the Rugby Championship sides, probably the most used to having to deal with little prep time.
Argentina last year put an end to the old theory that you can’t come into a Test series cold.
When that was true, sides assembled during the week of the opening Test, and by the time logistics, uniforms, photographs and the first bonding session were dealt with, there wasn’t a lot of time left for training. Accordingly, stuttering, rusty opening matches were the norm.
Camps are now highly organised, with large squads plus cover players added, to ensure that training sessions offer as much or more physicality and intensity than traditional warm-up matches. Sure, there are challenges around getting enough game time into fringe squad players, but the way Reece Hodge went on Saturday suggests that there is little to worry about.
South Africa are the odd man out, but whatever notional advantage they get from the Lions series has the potential to be offset by injuries and, if they win, a hangover.
Overall, for mine, it’s a non-factor.
This is going to be a huge challenge, no doubt, and each country will inevitably handle it differently. New Zealand have already named the squad, but the Wallabies players not from cities in lockdown are in the middle of a week off.
It’s a test of the coaching and training program, and I can image the key is going to be doing as much field work and ball work as possible. The last thing any coach would want is to have to do a short hit of fitness to work off the few extra KFC kilos that are bound to creep back on in between camps.
I do think it’s probably the Wallabies that are most in danger, and I’m quite sure they would prefer to be playing the first Bledisloe this afternoon. When the tail is up, you’d do anything to delay the droop.
But, I suppose, there won’t be any shortage of enthusiasm as they come back into camp ahead of Bledisloe 1.
Question 2: The Lions Tests are finally upon us, and not without a few bumps and bruises and hurdles and stressful episodes. What are we hoping to see most of all, and what’s your one-line series prediction?
My preview says it all. However, I’ll add this: if both sides play their best, the Boks will sweep the series, by three to six points per Test.
The Boks’ pack is too strong and clever. The Boks’ nine-ten-12 axis is better. And the Boks have better strike counter-attackers like Cheslin Kolbe.
The problem is peaking performance without proper preparation. The Lions should be less undercooked than the Boks. So the Lions have the most advantageous situation since 1974, when South Africa was starting to slide from isolation.
But I’ll take the home team, 3-0, with the first Test the only one that comes down to a kick at the death.
One of the wonderful aspects of a Lions tour is the fantastic visiting army of supporters, and it is of course tremendously disappointing that we will not see the seas of red in the crowd given the restrictions this tour is faced with.
I am hoping the lack of crowd support (for both sides) does not impact heavily on the intensity of the matches.
All I want to see is a brutal, openly fought series that goes all the way to the wire, followed closely by a series actually taking place as well.
My one-line prediction: the Springboks, based on the caveat that Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard remain injury free.
I’d love to see heaving, noisy crowds, but that’s as unlikely as Anthony Jelonch winning the Oscar for best actor.
In lieu, atmosphere will have to be generated through close, intense contests, with both sides putting everything on the line. That shouldn’t be too hard for two sides with that sort of pedigree.
Without a dog in the fight, I’ll be happy with a win each leading into a decider. And if that’s half as dramatic as the third Wallabies versus France Test, then we should all feel lucky.
More likely though, I think the Boks will spoil the fun and get the job done comfortably enough.
Let me put it this way: I’ve been looking forward to the Lions series a whole lot more and a whole lot longer than the Olympics.
It’s going to be missing a lot of crucial elements that make Lions tours great, there’s no denying that. And without the tens of thousands of travelling Brits and Irish it won’t have anywhere near the same atmosphere. Once it’s peeled back to this level, it’s just another game of rugby, really.
But it’s the whole concept that makes a Lions series great. It’s the best of the Home Nations coming together with very little history together, other than from opposing sides, to unite towards a single goal: travelling to the southern hemisphere and getting one over the former colonies.
It’s the last great rugby tour. It seems to get shorter or drops another tour game every four years. There’s still question marks around its future. But it’s the Lions. The spectacle is what makes it special.
So what am I expecting: at least one, and hopefully three really tightly fought Tests. And not a South African clean sweep.
Over to you: How do the Wallabies, All Blacks, and Los Pumas maintain their momentum over the next month?
And what’s your Lions series prediction?