This will be no dead rubber
In Davis Cup tennis they talk about a “dead rubber”, a reverse singles match that doesn’t matter because the tie is already decided.
Is this weekend's All Blacks-Springbok test therefore a “dead rubber” because the Rugby Championship title has been decided?
Not on your life!
The Boks will want the last laugh – it wouldn’t be the longest laugh because the trophy is on its way back to Wellington, but the last laugh all the same and a real springboard to what lies ahead.
We watched the Loftus test on Saturday before heading from Buenos Aires to La Plata for the All Blacks' match against the Pumas.
As Kiwis, it is not exactly in our DNA to feel sympathy for Australians in sport, but the Wallabies cut a sorry sight as they succumbed to the Boks and suffered more nasty injuries. Add that to all the arrant nonsense going on around Quade Cooper, and the Wallabies are in a bad place right now.
They kept trying to run the ball, and just kept running into trouble. It was panicky stuff, and just dug their hole deeper.
But that is only part of the equation, because the Boks were good – very good.
Johan Goosen started out playing quite deep – not a bad idea to let him settle in – but as the game wore on he was taking the ball flatter and flatter and you could see the Springbok backline starting to really function as an attacking unit, really for the first time this season.
As long as he stays healthy he can be the key to a very good Springbok team over the coming years.
The other standout players for me were Bryan Habana and Francois Louw.
For all his electrifying ability as a runner, Habana’s most admirable quality has always been his hunger for work. Even if he has been frustrated at times over his career by playing in teams that prefer him to chase the ball rather than run with it, he has always tried his heart out. He was out of sorts a year or so ago, but now he is back in great form and sniffing the tries out.
Louw was a colossal influence, both with ball in hand and on the ground. His size makes him that much more difficult to contend with. I am not a great fan of flying players back from overseas for the national team, but Louw has justified his inclusion.
The win, even if it was against a banged-up Aussie side, will have given the Boks a major shot of confidence going into the cauldron at Soweto.
The All Blacks have achieved their goals of retaining the Bledisloe Cup and winning the inaugural Rugby Championship, but they will want to keep winning. They are starting to threaten the record of consecutive test wins, currently shared between New Zealand and South Africa.
If they can manage a win this weekend they would be a hot favourite to set a new mark with the first two tests of the end-of-year tour against Scotland and Italy.
But it almost goes without saying that’s a very big “if”.
Despite having the silverware locked away, the All Blacks will have powerful motivation.
Playing the Boks is always motivation enough, but I think that record might be more of a target than they are letting on. And they are looking like a hungry team right now.
Some thought they might battle to put away the Pumas at La Plata, but instead they flicked the switch and produced the performance they have been threatening all winter
Passes that were being dropped in earlier tests were sticking, they mixed up their backline formations constantly, but always ran good straight hard lines, giving their best tackle breakers, Ma’a Nonu and Kieran Read, the chance to bust through the normally tough Puma defence.
Dan Carter returned from injury with a masterful display – so we can look forward to seeing the best in the world against the potential successor to that mantle.
It was an outstanding performance and they won’t want to drop their standards a bit. If they do then the Boks will have a chance to avenge their gallant defeat in Dunedin.
The Springboks will need to step it up a notch, and they will need to be far more disciplined than they were three weeks ago. I think it goes without saying they’ll be more accurate in their goalkicking, unless you believe in lightning striking the same place twice.
Finally I must say it was a delight to spend a few days in the Argentine capital, culminating in the test in nearby La Plata.
The local rugby people were marvellous hosts, and several hundred travelling Kiwi supporters got to enjoy massive steaks cooked over coals at some of the 80 rugby clubs dotted around Buenos Aires.
The atmosphere at the stadium was fantastic – akin to a big European soccer match – and although they became less vocal as the score mounted, they were a knowledgeable, sporting crowd and were generous in their recognition of the winners.
The Pumas are already showing signs of a willingness to open their game up a little, which is good. They have a good pack, defend superbly (normally) and have some real talent in their backs.
And they are bringing a new culture to our Rugby Championship, and now that I have been lucky enough to sample it first hand, I can say I hope they continue to grow and continue to be part of the annual Southern Hemisphere tournament, because they have already brought much to the table.
We were arriving at BA airport for our flight to Johannesburg (via Brazil, for some reason) as the Wallabies were arriving – or at least what remains of the Wallabies.
They play the Pumas up country in Rosario where it is very hard to win, and with all due respect to the beleaguered Wallabies, I do think it would be great for the Championship if the Pumas could get a win to show for their efforts in their first year.
Meantime I have arrived with my colleagues in Jo'burg, we have settled in after a good flight on SAA from Sao Paolo and I am very much looking forward to the next chapter of the great rivalry.