The 2016 Super Rugby results as well as the statistics indicate that the gap between the South African and New Zealand teams is growing. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Lions produced a well-balanced performance to thrash the Blues 43-5 in Johannesburg on Saturday. While it was a wonderful display in isolation, it was in no way reflective of where South African rugby stands in relation to the trendsetting New Zealanders.
The All Blacks have won two World Cups and three Rugby Championships over the past five years. The New Zealand franchises have lifted three Super Rugby trophies during this period. New Zealand's superiority at both levels has been patent, and their dominance over the South African teams, both home and away, has been just as plain.
The bad news is the New Zealanders are showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, their results against the South African Super Rugby sides in 2016 are already better than they were in 2014 and 2015.
This should be cause for concern. Indeed, respected members of the New Zealand rugby fraternity are beginning to lament the lack of competition.
'New Zealand sides are a cut above the others, which is disappointing really because you need the other sides strong to have a good competition and increase the interest,' 2011 World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry recently told Radio Sport.
The Super Rugby logs make for interesting reading. Four New Zealand sides are among the top five in the Australasian rankings. All four of those teams have accumulated more log points than the leader of the South African group, the Lions.
With regard to the South Africa-New Zealand rivalry, more can be read into the matches between the relevant teams.The Lions and the Sharks have already completed their conference fixtures against Kiwi opponents. The Kings have played four games and are set to play their fifth and final fixture against the Highlanders on 2 July. Collectively, these South African sides have won four out of 14 matches with a success rate of 29%.
Traditionally, South African sides have struggled to win consistently in New Zealand, and so the return of two wins in seven matches this season will not come as a surprise. However, what's been concerning to see in recent times is how often local sides have lost in South Africa.
Already, five out of seven home games have been lost to New Zealand sides in 2016. There's a good chance that the Kings will lose the eighth and final home clash to the Highlanders, a result that will bring the 2016 success rate against New Zealand sides in South Africa down to 27%.
The Lions and Sharks have disappointed in terms of their overall results and performances against Kiwi teams. Most South African fans will remember the Lions' historic win against the Chiefs in Hamilton earlier in the season, as well as the Sharks' victory against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
But both teams have lost three of their five matches against New Zealand sides. The Lions have lost two out of three of these clashes at home.
A study of the stats that matter serves to highlight New Zealand's dominance, not just over South African sides but over all other Super Rugby teams. After 12 rounds, a Kiwi side sits at the top of most categories. In many instances, three or four Kiwi franchises are among the top five.
The New Zealanders are adored by fans around the world because of their try-scoring ability. According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes are all in the top three across attacking categories such as tries scored, try-scoring bonus points, points scored and metres made. All three teams as well as the Highlanders are in the top four for clean breaks, while the Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs lead the offload stats.
That said, the Kiwis have also developed a reputation for their kicking and defence over the past five years. It shouldn't surprise to see the Highlanders leading the kicks-from-hand stats after 12 rounds of Super Rugby, or the Crusaders and Highlanders among the top five teams in the tournament for fewest points conceded and best tackle-success rate.
The strength in South African rugby still lies in its defence. The Stormers have conceded the fewest points in 2016 (although they are yet to play a Kiwi team), while the Sharks have conceded the third-fewest points and have forced the most turnovers. The Lions are ranked eighth and third respectively in these departments.
The Lions have on occasion struck the right balance and drawn worthy comparisons to a Kiwi side. Indeed, they are South Africa's top-ranked team in the categories of tries scored (fourth overall), points scored (fourth) and try-scoring bonus points (fourth).
This may give South African rugby fans reason to believe that the Springboks can evolve to play a more complete brand of rugby in 2016. The Boks should be too strong for Ireland this June.
And yet, on the evidence of the 2016 Super Rugby conference results, there is less reason to believe that a South African side will beat a Kiwi opponent in the playoffs or that the Boks will slay the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images