Boks will be world beaters
I have no doubt the current Springbok team could grow to be world beaters.
This has proved to be a challenging year following the departure of a group of world-class players, including the best lineout forward of all time and one of the best ever scrumhalves.
By the time the next World Cup comes around, guys like Eben Etzebeth, Juandre Kruger, Jaco Taute and Johan Goosen will be seasoned international players, and with Bismark du Plessis back in action, they’ll be a much stronger prospect next year, even.
There’s a rider on this: it’s about the way they play, but I’ll get to that later.
Right now, there is little question that the All Blacks are the pre-eminent team in world rugby, sitting on 16 straight wins, with World Cup, Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship trophies sitting alongside each other at HQ in Wellington.
It will be pointed out that both South Africa and in particular Australia had to deal with heavy casualty lists, but I believe this is not all due to sheer bad luck.
The current All Black side may not be the best ever, but they are certainly the fittest. They are superbly conditioned and managed. During the week prior to the test at FNB Stadium they only had one full-on training session. They have been working at quality rather than quantity in their preparation. They didn’t even bother with the traditional captain's run for the tests in La Plata and Johannesburg, because of the time it would involve sitting on a bus.
At home there is a tacit agreement between the NZRU/All Blacks and the franchises that key players be given downtime during Super Rugby – ideally a week off one side of the bye so they get a good ten days downtime.
And Richie McCaw, who has played brilliantly but also taken a pounding during the current winter, has been given six months off at the end of the current rugby year in an attempt to prolong his career.
It would take someone of greater knowledge than me to prove it, but I am sure there is some sort of correlation between fitness, conditioning and workload management, and the lack of chronic injuries affecting the All Blacks right now.
It is a vindication of the pyramid system in New Zealand, where the best interests of the national team are paramount. It hasn’t always worked – the “rest, rotation and reconditioning” programme prior to the 2007 RWC is widely regarded as a spectacular backfire, but a more subtle approach since then has produced rich dividends.
There is also the confidence and self-belief that comes with winning. On Saturday you felt that once the All Blacks stopped giving away penalties and started winning some ball, they would be able to breach the Bok defence because of their ability to maintain possession until the opportunity arose to put each other into space. Their counter-attack was also devastating, but this has been a hallmark of New Zealand sides for the last decade.
This is where the Boks need to develop their game, if the aforementioned rich potential of their players is to be realised.
They did score one cracking try on Saturday, and should have had another when Bryan Habana spilled the ball near the line, but too often they played into the hands of the All Black defence.
Whereas the All Blacks have worked at putting each other into space, or finding a “weak shoulder”, there is an almost instinctive tendency of the Bok runners to go looking for full-on contact.
The ball-carrying of Alberts, Mtawarira, Strauss and co can be very effective, but good line speed meant that too often the ABs were able to stop the big men behind the gain-line before they got momentum up, stymieing their game plan.
The stats (rugbystats.com.au) show that the ABs ran with the ball 53 times to the Springboks' 72, but made 120 metres more. That says a lot.
Once again, despite the perception, the All Blacks kicked the ball a lot more than South Africa, but did so for greater effect. By the end, Daniel Carter was giving a masterclass with a mix of length, deft touches, and angles that allowed no chance of counter-attack, even if the Boks had been inclined. Too often the Boks just kicked the ball away.
We were robbed of a clash between Carter and Johan Goosen – seems like the young man went in with one injury and came out with another which was rotten luck, but there was also some bad management of the situation which certainly contributed to the All Blacks' all-important second try.
Finally I must say how much we have again enjoyed being in South Africa. The weather has been stunning, the hospitality welcoming and friendly. It may be a rivalry, but there is also a brotherhood.
I am now heading home and hoping to catch up on some sleep… the time shift from Argentina to SA is a bit of a shocker!
And if I could answer one question I have been asked several times: the steaks in Argentina are bigger, but they taste better in SA because you guys know how to age your meat. Fantastic.
But I think I might be eating fish for a few days when I get home. I’m red-meated out!