SPIRO: Whoever wins Rugby Championship will be world’s best side
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All Blacks player Aaron Smith gets past the tackle of Brian O'Driscoll. AFP PHOTO / Michael Bradley
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A couple of years ago Brad Thorn made the comment that the Tri Nations was a tougher tournament to win than the Rugby World Cup tournament. There was some hyperbole in this but not too much.
There are special difficulties about winning the RWC tournament, as Thorn learnt in 2007 in France. But Thorn’s point is that teams can win the RWC tournament without playing the best teams in the world.
The Springboks won in 2007 and did not play either the All Blacks or the Wallabies.
England won RWC 2003 without playing the All Blacks.
In RWC 1999 the Wallabies won the tournament without playing the All Blacks.
And in 1987 the All Blacks won a tournament that did not include the Springboks (still boycotted from international sport) or the Wallabies, who went into the tournament as the favourites and acknowledged as the best team in the world.
With The Rugby Championship the team that wins has to beat four of the strongest sides in world rugby.
At least one or more of those victories has to be away matches.
This is the point that Thorn was trying to make. And the recent round of June Tests reinforces just how hard the task of winning The Rugby Championship is going to be.
For all these teams now have form in defeating the best sides in the Six Nations.
The Pumas defeated France at home in the first Test and then were crushed in the second Test 49 – 10 (six tries to one).
This was France’s first victory in Argentina against the Pumas in 14 years.
Graham Henry has been consulting the Pumas coaching staff and the main point he has made is that the Pumas have to learn to score more tries.
No one doubts the scrummaging, mauling and defensive qualities of whatever pack they put on to the field.
The forwards tend to be on the large side and play with a certain disdain for the niceties of pain, whether they are inflicting it or absorbing it.
They have a strong Rugby Sevens program and youth program (making the finals of the IRB Junior World Cup for the first time).
It is only a matter of time before they develop a group of really terrific backs (they have produced the occasional brilliant player).
When they do, the Pumas will match any team in the world.
At this stage of their development the Pumas will be difficult to defeat at home and probably unlikely to rack up victories overseas.
The Springboks have a new coach in Heyneke Meyer, a former coach of the Bulls.
His Springboks played an awesome opening 40 minutes against England in the first of their three-Test series.
They then came back to England’s level, winning the second Test by a small margin and drawing the third Test. England were not good enough to convert field position in the last plays of the Test into a successful field goal.
The Springboks will be better coached by Meyer than they were under Pieter de Villiers.
But to be honest it was disappointing to see Meyer picking the usual suspects in the backs (Morne Steyn, for instance, is a great goal-kicker but a poor pivot for a running backline).
He was coaching his side to play the traditional Bulls kick-and-chase game with elements of smashing broken field running.
This game was good enough for the Bulls to win a clutch of recent Super Rugby titles. And it won the RWC 2007 with Victor Matfield totally dominating the lineouts and Percy Montgomery (remember him?) booting over the penalties.
By 2011 this game was no longer a winner for the Springboks.
Although the Bulls are doing well in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, they are not even the favourites to win the South African conference.
Sooner or later a Springbok coach is going to do what the All Blacks have been doing so successfully since 2010 – enhancing a very good set piece and ball-running pack with backs with speed and skill to cut oppositions not on their game to ribbons.
The point here is there are brilliant backs going around in the South African franchises who have not been given a chance to play at the highest levels.
One further point to this is that such is the strength of South African rugby that, especially at home, the Springboks are always extremely difficult to defeat. It doesn’t matter what restrictive tactics their opponents prefer to adopt; the result is almost always the same.
You would think with all their Super Rugby franchises (except the Lions) playing dynamic rugby that the Springboks should be extremely formidable in The Rugby Championship.
There was a school of thought that believed that once the All Blacks won their second RWC tournament that the hunger would go and that, as Greg Martin opined, they’d be on a bit “of a slide” this season.
This was said after the All Blacks got out of jail at Christchurch and kicked the winning drop goal with only minutes of play left.
Winning the RWC 2011 tournament released a huge burden off the backs of the All Blacks; ‘Free at last, O Lord, free at last.’
They showed resilience to win at Christchurch and then last weekend at Hamilton, on a perfect pitch and pleasant night and with a referee who was not named Nigel Owens, they played absolutely sensational rugby.
For their inspirational captain Richie McCaw and for the coaching staff, I’m sure the fact that they kept Ireland scoreless was a special bonus from the brilliant victory.
The All Blacks played an all-field game (a rugby equivalent of the tennis all-court), at speed and with a ruthlessness and efficiency on attack and defence that was sometimes breath-taking.
The only times the All Blacks have held Ireland scoreless in their 27 Tests since 1905 were in that first Test at Dublin and in 1924.
The 1905 All Blacks, ‘the Incomparables’ are a fabled side in New Zealand rugby lore. The 1924 side were given the honorific ‘the Invincibles’ for their achievement of touring Europe without losing a match.
For the 2012 All Blacks to be now in the record books with those two earlier sides is a significant accomplishment. It’s an omen too, perhaps, for the side’s future progress.
The Rugby Championship will reveal whether the Test at Hamilton was a flash in the pan, or if a new and marvellous All Blacks side is being created.
It is a new side;, only 8 starters at Hamilton played in the RWC 2011 final.
At the beginning of the series against Wales, and especially after the dismal loss to Scotland in the foulest of weather admittedly, only a brave supporter would have predicted the Wallabies defeating the current Six Nations champions in all three Tests.
All the finishes were tight, admittedly. But the Wallabies found ways to win without two of their x-factor backs Quade Cooper and James O’Connor.
Moreover, Kurtley Beale (their most valuable back in my opinion) only playing modestly until a splendid final Test.
The main worries for the Wallabies going into The Rugby Championship are the lack of tries scored and what Robbie Deans himself conceded was a “dysfunctional” scrum in the third Test.
The Wallabies, unlike the All Blacks, rarely put their opponents to the sword even when they are greatly superior to them. This was the case even in their glory days.
But they do have an ability to rise to the occasion. This is why they are ranked number two in the world and are aiming for number one.
I noticed that Clyde Rathbone was critical of The Rugby Championship as a title. In the past I have suggested it should be called The Southern Cross Championship.
But I can see two very good reasons why suggestions like this have not been actioned.
First, The Rugby Championship title is an invitation to an international company with deep pockets to insert their name into the format.
Second, and I think more importantly, the title succinctly and elegantly sums up the essence of the tournament.
The team that wins The Rugby Championship will be in most years, even in RWC tournment years, far and away the best national team in the world of rugby.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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