Heat is on as All Blacks hunt Springboks’ No 1 status

Very little can be read into rankings, but as the gap narrows between the Boks and All Blacks, it does add some extra spice to proceedings as the historic 100th Test between the two rivals looms, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Just recently, the Springboks’ lead at the top of the world rankings had stretched beyond five points.

Yes, critics have debated the merits of the rankings, especially at a time when the Springboks were deprived of any international action for the better part of 18 months.

And, yet, by backing up the 2019 World Cup triumph with a courageous 2-1 British & Irish Lions series win, the Boks proved they are a champion team unequivocally worthy of their position at the summit of the game.

Rugby fans notoriously have very short memories, though, and the old cliche “You’re only as good as your last game” came sharply into focus after the Boks’ disappointing defeat by the Wallabies this past Sunday.

Despite the fact it was just the Springboks’ second defeat in the past 18 Test matches, onlookers reacted with anger and exasperation after a two-point defeat.

Suddenly Handre Pollard, as well as other World Cup and Lions series winners are under fire, with plenty of perspective lost in the midst of the emotion after a last-gasp loss.

South Africa’s lead at the top of the World Rugby rankings has also now been reduced to just over two points by the All Blacks, and if there were another repeat of the results from the weekend, there would be very little separating the sides as they prepare for their centenary Test.

Say what you will, but the battle between the Boks and All Blacks is the ultimate test for either side, and these are the matches by which both sides will judge themselves.

In his most recent column for SA Rugby magazine, former Bok captain Jean de Villiers reflected on how playing against New Zealand was always the ultimate examination and privilege for a Springbok.

“I relished every opportunity I had to play against the All Blacks. In the first half of my career, I actually won more than I lost against them. By the time I finished up in 2015, however, I had won nine out of 23 Tests against the All Blacks.

“South Africa went through a difficult period and really struggled against New Zealand in particular. Over the past four years, though, they have clawed things back to restore some respect to the rivalry. It’s a good thing for the Boks, as well as a good thing for rugby as a whole.”

Interestingly, an overall look at the history between the Boks and All Blacks reveals how results have favoured the Kiwis to the tune of 59 wins compared to just 36 by South Africa.

However, ahead of the 100th Test, it’s more recent history that’s of relevance. And the Boks will draw plenty of confidence from the fact that over the past four Tests between these two sides, only 10 points in total were separated the sides (South Africa accumulated 95 points to New Zealand’s 105).

The All Blacks’ compelling start to the 2021 Rugby Championship, which has included resounding wins over Australia and Argentina, suggests they are in menacing form once again.

It comes at a time when the Springboks have wobbled against the Wallabies, but this weekend’s rematch is sure to provide far better insight into whether that was a one-off slip-up or not.

My feeling is that the Boks will be far better in the return match against Australia, and will rebound in victorious fashion, setting things up perfectly for an epic showdown against the All Blacks on 25 September.

It doesn’t stand to reason to pay all that much attention to the rankings but, as it stands, it’s probably an accurate reflection that very little separates these two great rivals.

All of a sudden, many may feel the All Blacks are even favourites heading into the final two Rugby Championship Tests against the Springboks, and there is no doubt that New Zealand are desperate to regain the status of as the No 1 team in the world.

The Boks have stood firmly in their way since 2019, but it’s the two upcoming head-to-head Tests that will soon reveal a lot more about the champion qualities of each side, and who is the best of the bunch right now.

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Craig Lewis