The unrelenting superiority of the New Zealand teams in Super Rugby suggests there will be more suffering for the Springboks during the Rugby Championship, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In two months’ time, the Boks will take on the All Blacks in Christchurch. It’s the sort of clash that has long been viewed as the pinnacle of Test rugby, and one that fans will get seriously hyped up about.
Yet the fact remains that the Springboks have not won in New Zealand since securing a narrow victory in 2009. Since then, they have won just two Tests out of 13 against their Kiwi counterparts. It doesn’t make for pretty reading, and it certainly doesn’t live up to the perception of an epic rivalry where any team can win on any given day.
The fact is, New Zealand rugby has been moving into a different stratosphere for some time. The depth, talent, systems and structures in place continue to strengthen their Super Rugby franchises, and are designed to ultimately ensure the All Blacks are as strong as possible.
A central contracting system continues to reap abundant rewards, while a cultural philosophy of 'All Blacks first and foremost' continues to ensure that the chasm between New Zealand rugby and the rest keeps on expanding.
Former long-serving Sharks coach John Plumtree, now an assistant at the Hurricanes, recently pointed out what he believes sets New Zealand rugby apart.
‘It's just to do with our depth and our systems that we've got in place. There just seems to be a greater train of talent coming through and it's structured in a way that the players can perform at a high level.
‘There's a massive focus on team first, I believe, in all the franchises, and I think we see the benefit of that when the going gets tough. Certainly the New Zealand teams have been known for that.’
Plumtree also suggested that the intensity of play and ability of New Zealand sides to perform at an optimum level for the full 80 minutes also serve as a differentiating factor.
Indeed, throughout his tenure former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer spoke of the need to improve players’ fitness and conditioning in order to ensure they could compete with the All Blacks until the final whistle.
Just last year, the extra focus the Boks were placing on their conditioning ahead of the World Cup was believed to have been a considerable contributing factor to their 'flat' performance when they suffered a shock loss to Argentina in Durban.
As it turned out, the Boks came up against the All Blacks in a highly anticipated World Cup semi-final battle, and yet it was the Kiwis who again finished the game with greater composure and game management to come away with the win.
And in the final, the Wallabies simply couldn’t live with an All Blacks side that upped the ante in the second half and ultimately romped to a second successive world title.
Again, throughout this Super Rugby season, we’ve seen time after time just how peerless the New Zealand teams have been. The Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders all finished with 50 log points or more. The only other sides to tally as many points have been the Lions and Stormers, with the latter really benefiting from a dream draw.
If the quarter-finals were hosted based purely on the top-four ranked sides, there would be three clashes in New Zealand. The fact that there will just be one, points to the absurdity of the qualifying format.
This past weekend, the quality of the encounters between the Hurricanes and Crusaders, and the Highlanders and Chiefs superseded almost everything we have seen this season.
The rugby was simply sublime, and in the SuperSport studio afterwards, former Bok captain Jean de Villiers was lavish in his praise of the quality on show.
From a South African rugby perspective, the one real bright light this year has been the Lions, but even they have lost three games to New Zealand opponents, while also embracing a brand of rugby that can’t just be copied and pasted at Test level.
In June, the All Blacks illustrated that even in the absence of Test legends such as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, not to mention midfield stalwarts Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, they have the succession planning and continuity to continue performing at a superior level.
The Boks, by contrast, are clearly a team in transition under Allister Coetzee, and their struggles against Ireland did little to instill a sense of belief that they will have much hope against the might of the All Blacks.
And again in Super Rugby, New Zealand teams continue to provide one reality check after another. The chasm is increasing and the All Blacks remain in a position of a cut above the rest. That’s a sobering fact.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images