Well, I certainly didn’t see South Africa sliding down the tables quite like they have in the last two weeks, and I’m quite sure I’m not alone in that.
And with the Springboks coming into back-to-back Tests against New Zealand with dwindling form, while at the same time Australia face an Argentinean side who just don’t have the same connection they displayed during last season’s Tri-Nations, it really feels like The Rugby Championship for 2021 could finish with a table that few would have predicted a month ago.
But what can the Springboks turn around in a week, ahead of what is now undoubtedly their biggest Test since the World Cup final two years ago?
And, if indeed it’s not the fall that kills you, but the landing, could the ‘Boks be in for more pain yet?
Lots of little things surprised me, if I’m honest.
That one of the best defences in international rugby over the course of two games against a team who had pierced but not broken down the All Blacks line would shell 21 and 19 tackles. That their tackle effectiveness would drop from 85 per cent in the first game to just 72 per cent in the second.
The Springboks only had to attempt 69 tackles in Brisbane – they had 60 per cent of possession – and they missed 19 of them.
That they would show so little variation in attack, play so narrowly, and just so bloody unimaginatively. The ‘Boks weren’t even that blinkered in attack through the Lions series, and in a couple of those games they played precious little rugby.
Some of the individual number made no sense, too. S’busiso Nkosi carried the ball six times for the two games. Willie le Roux – one of the great instinctive attacking fullbacks of the last decade – made 29 metres in total.
Lukhanyo Am carried ten times for 20 metres – and that includes scoring a try. The three of them, collectively, made one clean break and beat one defender. Between them. It doesn’t make sense!
If you’d only watched the Bledisloe Tests and saw just the stats sheets of the Mandela Plate matches, you could be excused for thinking the teams had been mixed up on the page.
It is evident that there is a shift in energy and mental fatigue in the ‘Boks. Maybe they are the same players but the cohesion as a team seems lost.
It is very likely that people behind keyboards do not realise the damage that the bubble produces over the days.
I know that Los Pumas last year did a good job, but it came from not playing rugby; this year they have been playing too much, went through too many time zones and bubbles, and it shows.
It’s pathetic to see a South African team without enough intensity and strength for the tackles and breaks which are prime characteristics of the current world champions. Nobody charges the kicks as they have been doing the last several weeks.
With this I don’t want to detract from the excellent work that the Wallabies have been doing, who have identified the weaknesses of the opponent and have known how to exploit them.
My first thoughts were, well, a lot. Surprised at the seeming lethargy, surprised at the lack of ambition with ball in hand, surprised at their disorganisation at times on defence. Just very surprised.
It was not that long ago that I watched a Springbok team in my home town in two consecutive years, win one and draw one playing a more expansive style.
Yes, I understand the more conservative style they have utilised with great success at the last World Cup and Lions series, but I had convinced myself that surely, they would not serve this strategy up against sides willing to play with pace and width.
Fair to say, so far, I have got that wrong and it seems that their current coaching team have, rather than notch up a few more strings to the Springbok bow, simply removed them altogether and it is very difficult to see how they turn this around within a week to, and to be blunt, mount a decent challenge based on form to date.
I have not written them off though, certainly not and it would not surprise me at all to see a very different performance out on the park on Saturday; even more so given the occasion (that side in 2018 that won in Wellington lost to the Wallabies the week before, so there is a warning there).
But something seems a bit off to me in that ‘Bok camp, and a comfortable All Black win would not be a surprise.
South Africa’s mental fragility and weak blindside defence was shocking to behold.
The ease with which the Wallabies found lanes and offloads was alarming. From 2018 through the Lions series, with one exception, the Boks owned the weak side of the field.
In fact, Faf de Klerk invented blindsides where none existed. But at Suncorp, Taniela Tupou was a blindside playmaker. The worry is Akita Ioane is coming. Down that tram.
Who will stop it?
The two biggest surprises about South Africa’s descent are how rapidly it has happened, and that things got worse in the second Test, not better.
It’s easy to look at the Lions series in retrospect and say things like ’the Lions were hopeless’ or ‘poorly coached’ or ‘played into the Springbok’s hands’ or whatever, but the fact is, they were still the Lions; they were a very formidable foe, and the series was won. Using the same players who won the World Cup.
It was a fair expectation that they would be too strong for Australia.
Scratching more closely, it’s obvious that the loss of a couple of key players like Cheslin Kolbe and Pieter Steph Du Toit has had a disproportionate impact.
And, to be fair to the Wallabies, the Boks have come up against an improving opponent who played the right tactical game against them, their execution getting better, in matches refereed by two Englishmen who have allowed cleaner and faster recycle of ruck ball than what the Boks prefer.
The big winners are undoubtedly Australia, who have fought back from a situation that has crippled many a Wallabies side in the past to beat the reigning World Champions emphatically twice in a week, and now have the Australian rugby public clambering to get behind them.
And now, they get to close out the domestic season with two games they should expect to win, and in front of huge crowd ready to make some noise. It would mark a fitting end to the roller coaster year for the game in Australia.
And the big losers are obviously the Springboks, with all the unsavoury things the South African scribes were writing about the Wallabies a fortnight ago now transferred to their countrymen, and with plenty of additional spice saved for the coach.
But I probably have to mention Los Pumas here too – they sadly look a shadow of the side that took the Tri-Nations by storm this time last year.
I have no doubt that the two biggest winners are the All Blacks and Wallabies.
Those in black are heading to a new title and have had the luxury of leaving important players out of the team and have given many others playing time. The quantity and quality of players that New Zealand has is incredible.
The Wallabies for their part found with these two triumphs the confidence in their game and recovered Quade Cooper.
Los Pumas are heading to last place, but it is not something that surprises us since they came to the tournament to test players, give others minutes on the court and try new things on their game.
The biggest loser is South Africa as their game and results are far from expected. They arrived as the great candidates, and not only have they lost two games since, they proved poor in their game.
And to top it off they lost the first place in the ranking.
Results wise, certainly the All Blacks have been the biggest winners, even more so considering how many players they have managed to bring on with all looking like they belong.
My earlier reservations around depth for NZ have eased slightly, while the Wallabies have shone in the last fortnight. Back-to-back wins over the current World CUp holders is nothing to be sneezed at and shows plenty of promise.
Despite their recent successes, the Springboks will clearly be disappointed with their last fortnight’s work. The manner of their defeats will be a major sticking point, while the Pumas, after their highs of last season, have proven the most disappointing of all showing little, no, zero improvement from the previous tournament.
Biggest Rugby Championship winners so far: Ian Foster, Dave Rennie, Queensland rugby fans, Quade Cooper, referees, the 50/22, BBBBB, and Rascal Rassie Erasmus (by his absence).
Biggest losers of The Rugby Championship: Jacques Nienaber, Mwandile Stick, the Pumas, and the NZ-Oz relationship.
With the proviso that there are two rounds remaining and we could all end up looking silly on Sunday, the biggest winner by far has been Ian Foster.
Restless natives in New Zealand, having bemoaned his appointment are now not only softening, but some are jumping on board. He and his coaching group are stepping out of Shag’s shadow and the side has an air of freshness and zap about it, albeit with a focused, steely determination.
Silver medallist is Quade Cooper, for reasons that are obvious. Some say the biggest comeback since Lazarus, I’d say including Lazarus. Honourable mention to Scott Johnson – when you’ve got Alan Jones begrudgingly praising Dave Rennie in his weekly column, then you know you’re finally getting somewhere.
OVER TO YOU: What have you made of the Springboks over the last fortnight?
And who have been the biggest winners and losers of the tournament to date?