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Rugby | Rugby Championship

How Kiwi dominance can be ended



The Castle Lager Rugby Championship season was ended at the weekend with a titanic, close battle between the Springboks and All Blacks, but there was nothing close about the way the competition turned out.

New Zealand finished in their customary position at the top. That is the way it has been for most of the Sanzaar (and Sanzar before Argentina joined) era, but just recently a competitive Championship has become much more rare than it used to be. In the early days of this year’s competition when the Boks were dominating Argentina and the All Blacks had gotten out of jail against the Wallabies, it was close. But it hasn’t been since then.

The Wallabies clinched second place when they grabbed a bonus point in beating Argentina in their last game but ended up with only just better than half the number of points that the All Blacks did. They managed 15 against the All Blacks’ 28. South Africa were next best with 14, and then the Pumas, without a win in the competition and who failed to even bank a solitary bonus point.

Of course the magnitude of the All Black log dominance was helped by the bizarre fact that the Boks and Wallabies could not be separated in two matches between them. The Boks could quite easily have won both games, in which case they’d have won four matches, and the gap at the top would not be as wide. The Australians probably feel the same.

The All Black superiority over the middle band teams – South Africa and Australia – was drummed out in two matches.

They smashed the Wallabies in Sydney in the first game but the Australians improved hugely the following week in Dunedin, where the All Blacks had to rely on a last-gasp try for the win. It was a similar sequence with the Boks – a big defeat in Albany was followed by an epic, close game at Newlands that the South Africans can consider themselves unlucky to have lost.

So those who’d like to see the New Zealand hegemony in the competition ended and for a closer contest that we can all get excited about, do have a straw to cling to. The All Blacks could easily have lost both in Dunedin and in Cape Town, leaving them with just four wins. It would have been a very different competition then.

Make no mistake though, the All Blacks do remain in a league of their own for now. Even though the Albany result had led many South Africans to believe the Boks had no chance at Newlands, the All Blacks always knew it would be a significant challenge. They weren’t buttering their opponents up when they said that Albany was a much tougher game for them than the score suggested.

They’ve been brilliant at conquering the travel factor for this last game of the Championship season over the past five years, and you could argue that in the past two seasons they at least haven’t had the altitude factor to worry about. But what they did have this time was an extra four hours at least (you have to factor in transit time) added to their long trip from Argentina via Brazil and Johannesburg.

They also had to deal with a Bok team that was switched on for an entire 80 minutes and that just refused to take a backward step. Urged on by a passionate crowd, the Boks really did throw the kitchen sink at the All Blacks this time, and more than that. Seldom has a Bok team been more relentless than Eben Etzebeth’s men were, and let’s not forget the All Blacks already had the Championship trophy under lock and key. For them to still prevail in a close game where for long periods they were pounded physically by a ferocious home onslaught was special.

The Newlands game and the Dunedin game did though issue a reminder that the All Blacks are not invincible, and when you strip the emotion from it, there is evidence that both the South Africans and Australians are improving. The Boks, in terms of having a plan and a team culture, are light years forward from where they were this time last year in the days after their mauling at the hands of the All Blacks at Kings Park.

So how far away are they from the All Blacks? On the evidence of just the 80 minutes at Newlands, it would be fair to say they have now found a pack that can hurt any team. Pieter-Steph du Toit had never worked at blindside flank at international level before but he has always had the capabilities and at the weekend it worked. Forget the fact he is bulky, he is an athlete and he does have the pace to get to the wide channels. With him in the side adding to the lineout options and his carrying ability, opposition forward units would have reason to be fearful and the Bok back row has the right mix to it.

Lood de Jager is also suddenly returning to the form he showed in his breakthrough season of 2015 and Steven Kitshoff has left coach Allister Coetzee with a headache when the experienced Beast Mtawarira returns to the selection mix.

Kitshoff’s was an exceptional first start for the Boks, and Wilco Louw showed when he came on why he is given such a big rap by those who enjoy props who can scrum. And he is only 23.

Francois Louw was good but the Boks will have to settle on a conventional No8 going forward, which of course is a reminder that the elected captain for the year, Warren Whiteley, hasn’t been there since June. The injured Uzair Cassiem is skillful and gives 150 percent but is not in the league of Whiteley, Louw or for that matter Duane Vermeulen, who could well be back in the mix for the end of season tour.

But while the Boks have the forwards to hurt anyone, you can’t expect them to start beating the All Blacks with their current backline mix. Jan Serfontein was magnificent against the All Blacks and has been consistent all year and Jesse Kriel has pace that could be well utilised in another position, but otherwise there isn’t much else to shout about.

Ross Cronje is by far the best local scrumhalf but he struggled when he was asked to play a tactical game in the first half at Newlands. It was noticeable that he looked more comfortable when the Boks started playing Lions rugby in the second half. Elton Jantjies unfortunately just doesn’t inspire confidence as the frontline selection as too often he looks nervy.

Handre Pollard will surely be back as a starter sooner rather than later.

It is not all bleak on the backline front, however, and Lukhanyo Am, who was selected in June but was then injured, would be the perfect answer to the No13 problem should Coetzee elect to move Kriel to the wing. The time surely can’t be far away where Warrick Gelant gets a chance too. Should these players come through, the Boks could yet mount a formidable challenge for Championship silverware in 2018.

WEEKEND RESULTS

South Africa 24 New Zealand 25

Argentina 20 Australia 37



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