All Blacks in a different league
The first Castle Rugby Championship ended at the weekend with the teams finishing in the positions most critics would have predicted at the start of a season where the All Blacks were always the overwhelming favourites.
By winning one of the rare real quality games of the competition with something to spare at Soccer City on Saturday, the All Blacks did something that the Springboks have failed to do twice in a first post-World Cup season – they confirmed their status as No1 in the world and played like the champions they undeniably are.
Not even the most churlish and one-eyed South African or Australian should deny New Zealand their glory, and with a winning record that dates back to when they lost to the Boks in Port Elizabeth last August, there is a rich culture of excellence running through Kiwi rugby. Not only are they world champions, the No 1 team in the world and now the first Castle Rugby Championship title holders, in the Chiefs they also boast the team that won the other Sanzar competition, Super Rugby.
It’s tempting to say that the superiority of the All Blacks in the Nasrec game mirrored that of the Chiefs in their Super Rugby final against the Sharks, but that wouldn’t be comparing apples with apples for the reality is that the team that should have had the excuses this time was the one that won. Like the Sharks in Super Rugby, the Kiwis had to travel halfway around the world to get to the last match, and yet it was they who finished the match the stronger team.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer was right to laud All Black flyhalf Dan Carter for the way he controlled the match once the New Zealanders went ahead. When the Boks were playing catch-up Carter never let them get the territory they needed to strike for the points they needed, and then there was the drop-goal that effectively ended the match as a contest.
The presence of Carter this time was one of a few big differences between the All Black team that played at Soccer City and the one that won by 10 points in Dunedin three weeks previously. Good though Aaron Cruden may be, he is no Carter. And the other difference was that as was feared at the time, the mauling the All Blacks were subjected to at forward at the Forsyth Barr Stadium only served as a wake-up call to their pack.
The All Blacks were awesome against Argentina and even better against the Boks, with their pack outlasting the hosts after the South Africans had started with predictable fire and physicality in front of a large and passionate home crowd. Once the Bok forwards ran out of gas and were blunted by the All Blacks, it was a case of the local backs being pitted against New Zealand’s experienced and brilliant backline, and that was never going to be a race.
The fact that the Boks were so comprehensively better than the injury-ravaged Wallabies the previous week only served to underline the yawning chasm between the top teams. By beating the Pumas in Rosario, the Australians drew level with the Boks on 12 log points, but they finish third because of an inferior points difference.
That is probably an accurate reflection of where the nations stand right now, except that if the Championship was a race around a circular track, the first-placed team would have lapped the second placed team. It was something readily acknowledged afterwards by Bok coach Heyneke Meyer.
“We are second at the moment but there is a big difference between first and second,” said Meyer.
“The All Blacks are a really quality side. They’ve won a lot of games in a row, and even when they play badly they win. That is a mark of how good they are. They have individually brilliant players who are also experienced who get them off the hook when they are in trouble. When they do have off-days you have to capitalise on them. We weren’t able to do that this year.”
As it turned out, the hard fought New Zealand win in Dunedin was the closest they came to losing this year, and had the Boks landed their kicks that day, they could well have closed the game out to repeat the feat of Peter de Villiers’ team in the same city in 2008. A miss though is as good as a mile, and in the end Meyer’s record in his first season looks remarkably similar to that of De Villiers in his maiden Tri-Nations, with a big home win over Australia and a strong game in Dunedin being the only bright parts of an otherwise gloomy campaign.
Of course the big difference between now and four years ago is that the current Bok team is just starting out whereas the 2008 one, even though playing under a new coach, were essentially the same unit that won the 2007 World Cup. There were signs during the competition that the Boks might be able to close the gap New Zealand have opened up much quicker than might have been initially thought, with All Black coach Steve Hansen readily acknowledging the potential of the South African pack.
“I thought the team we played against today was a very good South African team,” said Hansen.
“They will only get better, and once they have built a bit of character through experiences such as this defeat, they are going to be extremely hard to beat. They are very promising, particularly up front.”
But it was not a day Hansen needed to be worrying about South Africa, because for now his men have proved they can beat the Boks on any surface and at any venue.
“We set ourselves the target after winning the World Cup of ensuring that we don’t rest on our laurels and instead improve to the point we are a better team the year after winning the trophy than when we won it,” said skipper Richie McCaw.
“I think today was a special performance that underlined that we are achieving what we set out to do. We are playing like champions.”
And the stats amply illustrate his point – the All Blacks this year won six games, with the next best being Australia, who managed to win three.
The Boks won only two, a third of what the All Blacks achieved. The attack and defence statistics also show the All Blacks to be superior in every department of the game, with New Zealand having scored 18 tries against six, with the only other team to score more tries than they conceded being the Boks, who managed 12 against 10.
At the moment the balance of power can be likened to that which we saw in world cricket when the Australians were at their zenith in the early part of last decade. Although the Proteas were ranked second for much of that time, there was so much daylight between the teams that it seemed they inhabited different leagues. That is how it has become with the All Blacks and the Boks.
South Africa 16 New Zealand 32
Argentina 19 Australia 25