Tumultuous conclusion ahead in Rugby Champs
So what do you know, here is one of those rare years where the battle between the southern hemisphere powerhouses is going to have the title on the line right down to the last week.
For regardless of what happens in Auckland on Saturday, Ellis Park is likely to be the scene of a massive deciding game to the Castle Lager Rugby Championship in the first week of October.
Thanks to the Springboks’ storming win over Australia, where they emphatically demonstrated that rugby played the Heyneke Meyer way and perfected need not be boring, this should not be a year where the final match is a dead rubber.
The Boks and All Blacks have shown that when they play to their potential they are both at least 20 points better than the other teams in this year’s competition.
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Neither of them should have any trouble dispatching those teams in their remaining fixture against them – the Boks play the Wallabies at Newlands, the Kiwis travel to Argentina, where they won by a massive score last year.
That leaves the two matches between the traditional powerhouses of world rugby as the decisive games of this tournament.
If the All Blacks win at Eden Park on Saturday, it will mean the Boks will have to come from behind by winning at their favourite venue in the grand finale in October.
If the Boks make history by winning at the Auckland stadium for the first time since 1937, then the All Blacks are going to face the enormous obstacle of having to win at perhaps their least favourite venue on the international circuit.
Either way, that makes for a riveting and dramatic conclusion to Rugby Championship 2013.
It won’t quite be an event of the same magnitude as the clash between the two giants in the 1995 World Cup final at Ellis Park, but then what could rival that?
It will though be at least the equivalent of the 1998 Tri-Nations decider between South Africa and Australia. And that’s good for the competition and great for world rugby, which for too long has been dominated by the Kiwis.
The All Blacks' pre-occupation with still trying to play their natural game even though the inclement wet conditions demanded a different approach left the way clear for the Boks to surge to the top of the log at the halfway point.
New Zealand's failure to pick up the fourth try against Argentina in Hamilton could yet prove a significant moment in the Championship, as it’s not unlikely that it could be decided by a single point.
In that sense, the decision to take a kick at goal through Beauden Barrett when the All Blacks, having already scored three tries, were in an attacking position with six minutes to go, was a strange one.
The All Blacks were 12 points up at that stage and were not under any threat of being beaten. This was an occasion when the Dewaldt Potgieter approach of keeping the pressure on and the opposition team hemmed in their territory would have been the right one.
What could be even more significant to the outcome of the Championship though, was what happened 16 minutes before that.
The All Blacks were not to know then that the Springboks would later in the day win so easily in Brisbane, but their chances of romping to another easy title did sustain a setback when Richie McCaw limped off the field just short of the hour mark.
This was a game that showed that perhaps the All Blacks aren’t quite as good in some areas the next tier down than they might have thought they were.
For instance, Francis Saili experienced a nightmare debut, which started with a rank poor mistake that led to the only Puma try early in the game. He never settled or looked comfortable, and the Kiwis will be pleased to have Ma’a Nonu back this week.
Perhaps there is more depth at loose-forward, and make no mistake, Kieran Read is an outstanding replacement captain for McCaw.
But the confirmation that the legendary All Black skipper will be out for up to five weeks with his knee injury, which effectively means the rest of the Championship, should send shivers of apprehension through all Kiwi rugby fans.
All Black coach Steve Hansen is backing 21-year-old Sam Cane to effectively fill the void left by McCaw, but that won’t be easy.
You don’t just replace that sort of experience and level of leadership and expect everything to just carry on as if nothing has happened.
And the All Blacks will know that they are going into their first really big pressure situation since they won the World Cup.
HISTORY IS IRRELEVANT
The Boks may not have won in Auckland since 1937, but they showed in Brisbane that history is irrelevant if you back your game and you have the players to dominate their opposite numbers.
Everyone seems to be making a fuss about the four tries the Boks scored, but the platform for the history-making win was laid by the playing style that Meyer is so often maligned for.
The most significant statistic of the match was the one we heard about at halftime. The 81% territorial dominance enjoyed by the Boks was the killer.
And with the Wallabies either not having the kicking game to extricate themselves from the grip they found themselves in, or not understanding that this wasn’t touch rugby they were playing, that meant the end result was inevitable.
Ironically, the best passage of the game for Australia may well have been the 10 minutes when Michael Hooper was off the field after being yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle on Bryan Habana.
It was then, when they were down to 14 men, that they opted to play the percentages, and they almost looked half decent doing it.
But before that, in fact right from the start of the game, they just seemed intent on running every ball – and from their own territory against a good defensive system and a loose trio that was so dominant in the collisions, plus a scrum that was infinitely superior to their own, that was just suicide.
Indeed, the Wallabies' play was reminiscent of the mindless running of the All Blacks when they found themselves in a similar situation against John Smit’s triumphant 2009 team in Durban.
Even the Bok coaches were surprised at how the All Blacks had reacted to the suffocation technique of the South Africans that day, and it was a similar story with the Wallabies in Brisbane.
Of course the All Black test will be a significantly bigger one for the Boks. Auckland will be a clash between two teams who have established a winning habit, rather than one where a winning team is up against one that has lost more than it has won in recent times.
The Wallabies really are in a hole at the moment and are in serious danger of losing to the Pumas this coming week.
But while it will take some doing – and the All Blacks are great counter-attackers so the kicking game, not to mention the chasing, will again have to be pinpoint – the Boks can win in Auckland.
Lest it be forgotten, they would have won in Dunedin last year were it not for Morne Steyn’s lack of form, a lack of inventiveness on attack and ill-discipline.
All of that has come right for the Boks since then, so they cross the Tasman with real chance of success.
Wellington: New Zealand 28 Argentina 13
Brisbane: Australia 12 South Africa 38