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Rugby | Rugby Championship

A great boost for the Championship

The latest round of the Castle Lager Rugby Championship was probably the biggest shot in the arm that the competition has received in several seasons.

The smart money wouldn’t be placed on the current log situation, with the Springboks leading on points difference, remaining the same until the end of the competition. But it does make a pleasant change to see a different team on top on a weekend where the Wallabies, although ultimately falling short of their goal, served notice that New Zealand’s aura of invincibility that was pricked by the British and Irish Lions may not be as complete as was thought.

Let’s be straight up about the Dunedin game, which commentators rightly listed as a classic, though lest we miss an important point and lose all perspective. Although it was close, the All Blacks did still win. Not only that, they did so after coming back from a 17-0 deficit against a team that looked like it had improved its defensive game by 100 percent.

The World Cup and tournament champions also underlined their BMT and their confidence by striking back to win after they had conceded what looked like a match clinching try with just over four minutes remaining. The try that the Kiwis scored to win the game was immaculate in its conception. How many teams on the planet would have the composure and confidence to still win after slipping behind so late in the game?

The way they won showed us that they do still have that winning habit despite the argument to the contrary that may have been laid down by the British and Irish Lions late in two of the three test matches played in that series.

One of the strengths of the All Blacks since they launched their turn-around after a disastrous 2009 Tri-Nations season where they were whitewashed 3-0 by the Boks has been their ability to win late and when all the odds appear to be against them.

They did it against Ireland in Dublin in 2012, and they did it a couple of times on the Highveld between 2010 and 2015, with perhaps the most memorable late win for them being the one where they scored two tries in the last two minutes to win the Soccer City test in 2010 that celebrated John Smit’s 100 test cap.

Being involved in a close game might also have introduced a tinge of realism to the All Blacks, if the Lions series hadn’t already. They were starting to give the impression that the question for them wasn’t whether they would win or not, but by how much. They looked a bit deflated when the Wallabies cut their winning margin to 20 points in the first Bledisloe Cup clash in Sydney.

That realism could make them more dangerous as it might inspire them to lift a level. And of course the Boks are due to meet them in a couple of weeks, and it is likely to be built up as a big game. The South Africans should be concerned they might reap the whirlwind there.

If it was just the Dunedin game we were looking at, we might also be well advised to hold off any excitement about the Wallabies possibly being better than we thought they were. It was just one match after all. But it wasn’t just one game where the Australians played well and the All Blacks looked a little ordinary at times, particularly on defence. Instead, it was another two halves to go with the second half in Sydney, where the Australians scored a number of tries and played with confidence.

An Australian renaissance might seem unlikely given how their Super Rugby teams battled in that competition this year, but that might not have any relevance. Having five teams playing in the competition diluted the Australian strength in Super Rugby. The Wallabies though have a long history of being able to be strong with limited resources.

He is not the most popular man in world rugby, but Michael Cheika is a good coach. It should not be forgotten that the Wallaby appearance in the 2015 World Cup final came just one year into Cheika’s reign. There had been a bit of musical chairs played with the Wallaby coaching position before that.

The improved Australian defensive performance in Dunedin, though surprising considering how they were all over the place in the opening test of the Championship, was not really a bolt out of the blue. The Wallabies were in camp for several weeks before the competition started and they made no secret of how hard they worked on that aspect of their game. Perhaps Sydney was an aberration.

We will only know whether the Aussie resurgence is real or not when they play the Boks in Perth in the next game of the Championship. That could be some match, and it is looming as an important date for both teams.

There are still some South Africans who appear to be unconvinced about their own team’s resurgence, but that conviction should not be shared by anyone who knows what a well coached team looks like. Last year’s team did not look coached, the 2017 vintage does, and a convincing win at a difficult away venue in Argentina was achieved through a lot of thought and planning.

The Boks have passed every examination put in front of them so far, and although they have yet to play one of the top three teams in world rugby, there hasn’t yet been a game this year where they have scored less than 35 points.

The Wallabies, as the history of SA/Australia conflict in the SANZAAR competition shows, will represent a different level of challenge for the Boks, but they will go into it with five consecutive comprehensive wins under the belt.

They have the composure and the platform that could only be dreamed about a year ago. After this past weekend there should also be massive interest where there was already reason for apathy, with New Zealand well in front and the Boks having already dropped a game and the Aussies well beaten in two, a year ago.

Weekend results

New Zealand 35 Australia 29

Argentina 23 South Africa 41


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