It’s frightening to think how strong this All Blacks side may become in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Trepidation. Agony. Fear. These are the emotions Heyneke Meyer would have experienced in the final 20 minutes of the Test against the All Blacks at Ellis Park this past Saturday.
Firstly, the sense of foreboding, the anxiety of ‘knowing’ that the All Blacks would move up a gear in the final quarter. Then the agony; the heartbreaking moment when the visitors put together the match-winning play, this time via an inspired lineout manoeuvre.
Finally, the frightening thought that this All Blacks side has not even begun to fire, that they could and should be stronger at the World Cup. Indeed, if these two teams meet in a semi-final in England this October, the Boks will have to contend with a more rounded and experienced All Blacks outfit. Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, Jerome Kaino and Julian Savea all missed the clash in Johannesburg, but will form part of New Zealand’s World Cup play-off campaign.
The All Blacks have dominated world rugby over the past four years, and have dominated the fixture involving their closest rivals. While Meyer and his opposite number Steve Hansen have slammed all talk of psychological advantages, the record between 2012 and 2015 makes a strong argument for New Zealand’s mental superiority.
The All Blacks have now won six of these clashes, the Boks one. The most recent result marked New Zealand’s third success on the highveld in four years, and their second victory in the last three games at the spiritual home of South African rugby.
Meyer has pointed out that the Boks have been weakened by injuries to senior players these past few months. He has rightly criticised the backward South African system that puts the interests of the franchises first. This is why there's always an issue regarding the South Africans' fitness levels.
He has reminded reporters of the gambles he's been forced to take as far as selection is concerned. Some have criticised the Bok coach for shunning the next generation, and yet, Meyer has hardly been conservative in selecting young and inexperienced players such as Handré Pollard, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel.
Meyer is speaking the truth when he says the Boks have improved, and he is right when he says the youngsters have made a difference. When several senior players return from their respective injuries, this Bok side will form a formidable combination and challenge strongly for the 2015 World Cup title.
The real question is whether they have improved to the point where they are the equal of the All Blacks. The results and performances of the past four years suggest not.
The All Blacks aren’t waiting for the Boks or any other rival to catch up. They’re surging ahead, operating at a new level of skill and intensity. Hansen and his coaching staff have also managed to blood young talent without compromising the team’s ability to obtain results.
The most recent clash at Ellis Park was a case in point. Hansen handed debuts to flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, and lock James Broadhurst. The pair had strong games against New Zealand’s closest rivals, and at a ground where the All Blacks don’t have a great overall record.
A less experienced, weakened All Blacks combination still managed to stand up to the physicality of the Boks, and hang on until the final quarter. It was in that period where the superior physical and mental strength of the New Zealand collective came to the fore.
The All Blacks will be stronger when their stalwarts return to action in the coming weeks. They will be a more potent prospect at the World Cup. And we shouldn’t be too surprised if they employ a different game plan than the one used at the recent clash at Ellis Park.
The All Blacks are celebrated the world over for their skills in contact and superb finishing. What they don’t get enough credit for is the accuracy of their tactical kicking, as well as their kick chase.
The return of Carter or even Beauden Barrett to the No 10 position will allow the All Blacks to play a more balanced game. Come the World Cup, we should expect them to be as physical and elusive as they were at Ellis Park, but more intelligent and accurate with their kicking.
They’ve come a long way over the past four years, but they could go even further at the coming World Cup.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images