The Springboks and England will challenge the All Blacks at next year's World Cup, writes MARK KEOHANE.
World rugby is in a healthy state. South Africa, England, Australia and Ireland have in the past two years edged closer to New Zealand. It’s good for the game when four teams are pushing each other so closely.
And England, as hosts of the 2015 World Cup, will have as good a chance of success as the defending champions New Zealand. The All Blacks have lost just once to England in their last 28 Tests, but in their last four Test wins against France, England (at Twickenham), Ireland and England (in Auckland at the weekend) they sneaked in on all four occasions.
Give the All Blacks their due. They’ve been tremendous and have shown incredible mental fortitude to continue winning in the two years post their 2011 World Cup success.
The criticism of the All Blacks prior to their 2011 World Cup final win against France at Eden Park was that they couldn’t win ugly. Well, these All Blacks have shown an ability to take the less glamorous route to Test wins and to grind their way through 80 minutes.
I don’t think they are a team in regression after the narrow escape against a weakened England; rather stagnation. The champions of 2011 hit their peak as a squad with the magnificent triumph against the Springboks at Ellis Park last season.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is unlikely to get the likes of 100-plus Test veterans Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock to September 2015 and the All Blacks tight five, as a unit, is vulnerable.
England and South Africa and to a lesser degree France, in Paris last year, have the forwards to suffocate New Zealand’s forwards and by extension stifle the fluency of the All Blacks backs.
The All Blacks will still be bloody good at the World Cup, but especially England and South Africa can be considered equally capable of winning the tournament.
England have good depth and their domestic Premiership is arguably the strongest and most intense in the world. There isn’t much between all the sides, unlike the Super Rugby and Top 14 competitions, in which there are two definite tiers of excellence and mediocrity in those respective leagues.
The All Blacks coaching staff would have been elated with the outcome at Eden Park because they got the Test win but they also got the answers a year out from the World Cup.
The Springboks, in terms of World Cup squad development, are the best placed. Meyer has got the balance right and his timing right of the reintroduction of veterans like Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, while only Handré Pollard, of the probable World Cup squad, is still to be added to the senior Bok squad. Pollard is currently inspiring the Junior Boks in the U20 World Championship and will either be picked during the Rugby Championship or the November tour to the northern hemisphere.
Stuart Lancaster has also been very good in phasing out a generation of England stalwarts no longer good enough and picking (on domestic form) less experienced international players.
I wrote in 2011 that the Springboks were an old side, but I wasn’t talking purely in terms of age. They lacked conditioning for the majority of Peter de Villiers’s four-year tenure. The players were a law unto themselves in their preparations and they played non-stop for those four years. They were an old side in playing minutes between World Cups. Their bodies were battered and they were poorly prepared over the four years for a defence of the title they won in 2007.
Victor Matfield, after a two-year retirement, is looking more like the presence of 2007 than he was in 2011, Bakkies Botha has been rejuvenated at Toulon and Fourie du Preez is in the best physical condition because of playing in Japan’s fast-paced and less physically demanding league.
Heyneke Meyer has two to three playing options in each position 14 months out from the World Cup and that is what makes the Boks so dangerous and so on track to be a realistic contender in England in 2015.
The Rugby Championship this season will be Meyer’s biggest challenge of the year. His Boks have lost four successive matches to the All Blacks in a two-year period and a further two defeats would cast doubt on their ability to beat the All Blacks at the World Cup, should the two teams meet.
It's important that Meyer’s Boks get at least one win against the Kiwis this season. That victory – and I believe the Boks are good enough to beat the All Blacks this year – would ensure Meyer’s squad goes to the World Cup with the knowledge that they have beaten everyone … not simply a belief that they can beat everyone.
This month’s Tests are about continuing a winning habit and building World Cup momentum because Wales and Scotland will offer even less than a mix and match World XV did at Newlands.
The Boks, in the next month, will be in a no-win situation but in the Rugby Championship they can control being in an all-win situation.
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