The Springboks and Wallabies will know they are closer than ever to firing a few shots across the bows of the world champions, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The All Blacks will lose this year for the first time in the short history of the Rugby Championship. Which doesn’t mean they won’t win the competition. But they will get beaten, maybe even twice, and I think it will be a relief to their coaching staff a year out from the 2015 World Cup, to be played in England. A team gains more from the occasional defeat than from winning, even when not at their best.
The All Blacks, because of their incredible success, win matches other teams would lose. They tend to win even when seemingly not playing well. They know the art of a winning habit and the rugby artists who won New Zealand a World Cup for the first time in 24 years have even perfected the art of winning ugly.
They’ve also even won the odd tight one with a drop goal, which pre the 2011 World Cup triumph was seen as blasphemous to the professed All Blacks’ running game.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has been more pragmatic than his World Cup-winning predecessor Graham Henry in approach. Henry was all about ball in hand, whereas Hansen has no issue with kicking for field position to advance the attack by 50m. Hansen’s All Blacks, in the past two Rugby Championships, have kicked more than Australia and South Africa. But they have also kicked with greater effectiveness and they have used line-kicking as an attacking weapon.
Hansen’s All Blacks have been magnificent since the 2011 World Cup triumph. They’ve won with dazzle and they’ve won in more dire circumstances.
The Houdini escape against Ireland in Dublin in 2013 was special in how it was fashioned, but the two greatest triumphs (for me) have come at altitude in South Africa against the Springboks. The 32-16 win in Soweto in 2012 was the best exhibition of rugby I’ve seen from an All Blacks team in South Africa against the Boks in the professional era. There have been many a fine win from the All Blacks in South Africa, but given the strength of the Springboks in 2012 and 2013, this ranks as the most memorable in quality.
The effort of the All Blacks has to be applauded. They’ve won everywhere in the world, including twice in succession at altitude in South Africa, and have not been beaten at home for five years. And they’ve done it when the schedule includes annual home and away fixtures against Australia and South Africa, and more than the occasional visit to England and France.
What has made the achievement that much more meaningful is that the All Blacks have done it at a time when South Africa have been strong. Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has built wonderful squad depth within the Springboks and I don’t believe any other team would have lasted an hour with the Boks in last year’s Rugby Championship finale at Ellis Park. Not only did the All Blacks last, but they scored five tries to four and won 38-27.
To appreciate how good the All Blacks have been is to understand how good the Springboks have become under Meyer’s guidance. The Boks are a damn good side, and with a bit of luck could have won two of the four matches they’ve lost against the All Blacks in the past two seasons.
Meyer has built the best pack in international rugby, has a back three that is comparable to anything in the international game and potentially has a flyhalf in Handré Pollard who can unlock any defence. Pollard enjoyed a stunning Test debut against Scotland, but his bigger contributions may come in the four-year cycle that precedes the 2019 World Cup. For now Meyer seems likely to persist with regular No 10 Morné Steyn, who has been his first-choice flyhalf since 2012.
Springbok rugby is at its healthiest since the 2009 season when those who won the 2007 World Cup beat the British & Irish Lions 2-1 and emphatically hammered the All Blacks 3-0.
The Springboks of 2014 are good enough to beat the All Blacks in South Africa and in New Zealand, but every chance has to be taken if they are to turn the potential of a win into reality. Ironically, the Boks have performed better in New Zealand, especially in 2012 when greater goal-kicking accuracy from Steyn would have won the Test in Dunedin.
There is reason for optimism within South Africa and Australia, and that is not to disrespect the achievements of the All Blacks at all. It is more a recognition that in any sporting code there are cycles of domination that cannot last forever. This is the case with Hansen’s All Blacks and the domination will end in this year’s Rugby Championship. Given the nature of the All Blacks, the hiccup may be momentary, but it will happen.
There was enough in the All Blacks’ first two Tests against England to give hope to Meyer’s Boks and Ewen McKenzie’s Wallabies.
England’s physicality troubled the All Blacks and when a team can consistently deny the All Blacks quick phase ball, they put themselves in a winning position. England could have won the first Test and were competitive in the second. They were blown away in the first 40 minutes of the third Test but there was again evidence in the second 40 that should give comfort to the Bok and Wallabies coaches.
New Zealand, physically, can be troubled. The area of vulnerability remains their lineout and when an All Blacks’ lineout falters, the All Blacks tend to stutter more than soar. The Boks, in the past two years, have not been able to consistently challenge the All Blacks’ lineout. This will change because of veteran Victor Matfield, who was outstanding in the June internationals.
Matfield’s return to rugby this season was initially mocked. There was criticism of Meyer for investing in a 37-year-old, but the coach was insistent his only investment was in the quality of the player. He did not care about his age.
Meyer, in conversations over the past two seasons, has lamented the lack of an imposing No 5 lock in South Africa. It was the one area he felt the Boks didn’t have an advantage and it was a position that offered limitations.
Matfield, in his prime, had no comparison. He was the Man of the Match in the 2007 World Cup final and his game was at a peak in 2009. But in 2014 he has shown the form that won him such respect internationally. He was the glue and inspiration in the 2-0 home series win against the Welsh and he captained the side impressively.
Jean de Villiers has returned as captain for the Rugby Championship but Matfield’s presence finally gives Meyer the calm that he has a No 5 solution and he has leadership options in the absence of De Villiers. Matfield’s presence will trouble the All Blacks and then it will need the line-kicking and goal-kicking of Steyn to close out the victory.
This year’s Rugby Championship will be the most competitive ever.
The Springboks are very good and the Wallabies are revived and running hot under McKenzie. They dismantled France 3-0 in June and showed plenty in winning four of their five Tests in last year’s northern hemisphere end-of-year tour.
The Wallabies’ set piece was strong against England, Italy and France and when a Wallabies set piece is strong, they are a threat to any team. I won’t be surprised if the Wallabies beat the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship opener in Sydney. They’ve been getting close to the All Blacks in the past 12 months and they’ll take form and belief into the Sydney showdown.
The All Blacks will be playing for a world-record 18th successive win but twice in the past five years the Wallabies have been the team to end a winning run that threatened a world record.
Argentina will again be the whipping boys. They will be good for a brutal contest at home in one or two matches, and they tend to find that something extra when they play the Springboks and All Blacks at home.
They don’t quite have the same blood boiling when Australia visit and they also don’t have the back play to match the wizardry of the Australians. They also don’t have the structure of the Springboks or the individual brilliance synonymous with the All Blacks.
The Argentinians also won’t produce standout moments in this year’s tournament because of a lack of individual quality.
If you are looking for individuals, don’t take your eyes off South Africa’s Willie le Roux, Australia’s Israel Folau and New Zealand’s Ben Smith. Israel Dagg has been viewed as the best fullback in the world but he is no longer the best fullback in New Zealand and his form has been secondary to Smith, Folau and Le Roux. All Blacks wing Julian Savea has also been very good.
The tournament will be the poorer because of scrumhalf Fourie du Preez’s absence through injury. The Boks also won’t be as threatening in their line-kicking game. But with no Du Preez to start, the next few months offer an opportunity for Ruan Pienaar to produce the type of performances that have made him one of the best scrumhalves in Europe.
Pienaar has been the strength of Ulster’s European challenge in the past three seasons but he has never shown the same authority when playing for the Springboks. He has won junior World Cups at U19 and U21 level and was a squad member of the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks, but in 76 Tests for the Boks he has been more journeyman than giant slayer.
This is his chance to come of age internationally. He will be operating behind a pack that marches forward more than it shuffles sideways and Meyer will be urging him to take ownership of matches, like he does for Ulster.
The Bok pack has few weaknesses. Bismarck du Plessis remains the best hooker in game, but he needs to play with more of a smile on his face than the grimace of the past year. Du Plessis looks pained when he plays these days and there is an element of petulance in his game that does him a disservice.
Meyer has more starting options at No 2 than any international coach, but Du Plessis is still in a class of his own because of his ability to play like a hooker and an openside specialist. There are few stronger over the ball than Du Plessis and he gives the Bok forwards the dimension a player like Sonny Bill Williams gives New Zealand’s back division.
South Africa are a better team when Du Plessis plays. So too the All Blacks and Williams, and Australia are most definitely more potent when Folau is at fullback.
Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are all good enough to win this year’s tournament. Australia and South Africa have improved enough to end New Zealand’s 12-match winning streak in the competition, but not enough to go unbeaten themselves.
There will be question marks over Australia’s set piece until they have played the Springboks in South Africa and there will be more clarity on the longevity of the inexperienced halfback pairing of Nic White and Bernard Foley.
South Africa’s question marks hinge around the back-up to Matfield at No 5 lock, the cover for specialist opensider Francois Louw and the influence of halfbacks Pienaar and Steyn.
The questions around New Zealand again will focus on their veterans, loosehead Tony Woodcock and hooker Keven Mealamu. For the first time in his incredible career captain Richie McCaw is showing signs of mortality and 2013 IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read has been troubled more by concussion than any one opponent.
Each of the big three has vulnerabilities but it’s their individual and collective strength that will make this year’s tournament the most competitive yet and the least predictable.
– This first appeared in the August issue of Business Day Sport Monthly
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images