All Blacks still World Cup kings, but gap has closed

Rugby


It’s fair to say there would have been some stunned New Zealanders in front of their television sets on Sunday morning. The final result would not have been expected at halftime, or even at three-quarter time, but it just goes to show the guts, determination and focus of the All Blacks to keep working hard. It paid off.

The All Blacks again showed they have a lot of depth. But, really, you have got to say the South Africans threw it away. They made too many errors; gave away a couple of penalties. It slipped away from South Africa.

But standing back after it was all over you would have to say the All Blacks did enough to win the first game in Wellington, but didn’t; while South Africa did enough to win the second game, but didn’t.

It just goes to show that the South Africans are back. They’re our old foes, and we’re in for some really good games of rugby in the future.

At the same time, South Africa are in a different situation to New Zealand because of their policy towards overseas players. The Springboks now look to the autumn series; for their game against England they are unlikely to be able to call on Willie le Roux, Faf de Klerk or Francois Louw, all who are regarded as key players, because the game falls outside the international window.

It does make it difficult to build on what they have achieved in the last few months, especially when trying to build for a Rugby World Cup next year.

There’s no doubt that there is a good feeling among South Africans about their side that wasn’t there 12 months ago, and coach Rassie Erasmus has done a great job. He’s pulled together a good band of players.

I remember three or four years ago when the World Under-20 tournament was held in New Zealand in 2014 and South Africa finished second, losing by one point to England 20-21, there were players like Handre Pollard, who captained the side, Andre Esterhuizen, Jesse Kriel in the midfield; they played some great rugby. I thought then that if these guys get to play together in the future South Africa are going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Due to a whole bunch of injuries and other reasons it just never happened. But now Pollard is back from his injuries and Kriel is there, and they look absolutely brilliant. Their spine at No. 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13 makes is really good. They are the nucleus of this rejuvenated Springboks outfit.

For a long time the All Blacks have been considered the world’s best; going through the team they had the world’s best players and that was part of the reason.

But look at the South African side and you have to ask: is Aaron Smith the world’s best halfback? Smith got outplayed at the weekend by Faf de Klerk who was just a dynamo. His speed allowed South Africa to play at a rate of knots that is going to test any team.

And Pollard is that player who just needs to stay injury-free. We know how good he is; he’s a class act. Siya Kolisi, the captain, is brilliant. You can go through that Springboks side, there are players who could potentially be superstars. You can’t say that about any of Australia’s current crop but you can look at that South African side and pick out some players who could be the best in the world in their position.

It’s easy to see why there was some controversy in South Africa about their substitutions, for whatever reason that we the general public don’t know. Apparently de Klerk had to come off because he was cramping.

But, by comparison, you would have to say that Steve Hansen’s use of the bench seldom lets the All Blacks down. The players coming off the bench are good enough to be pushing the starters whereas with other teams there is a bit of a gap between their starters and the players coming off the bench. And I think that is probably why the All Blacks are so good, there is just a wealth of talent sitting in behind the No.1 player.

We’ve seen that with the midfield combination. It was a shame Jack Goodhue was forced out of the game late because I would have liked to see him working with Sonny Bill Williams. But Ryan Crotty was able to step up and we all know what he is capable of.

Still, South Africa can take some comfort from their midfield combination because on the day they looked better than the New Zealand pairing did.

Looking ahead 12 months to the Rugby World Cup, there will be a few more nerves than perhaps there were earlier. But really, nothing has changed, we’ve always looked the best team 12 months out. We’ve got to keep reminding ourselves that in spite of all the All Blacks’ success, a World Cup is still a World Cup and that you don’t win it beforehand.

The All Blacks will be going into that campaign knowing they’ve got some stiff competition. The South Africans are on track, the Australians will do what they always do and time their run. Ireland are going to be a tough battle next month and we’ll get a gauge off that.

Everyone will step up, it just happens. I think that we’re not the million miles ahead of the rest of the pack that some people thought. There’s room for improvement which is always good I suppose.

Sam Cane’s neck fracture has given some pause for thought, and hopefully he makes a good recovery. But in New Zealand there will always be another flanker coming through. I think Ardie Savea, in the last two Tests, has really pushed his case forward and he’ll be looking forward to having a real opportunity now.

In behind him there are a whole bunch of names that are going to be talked about and it is going to be interesting who gets the nod. Dillon Hunt, from North Harbour and the Highlanders, had time with the All Blacks last year while Blake Gibson from Auckland is another player who springs to mind. Gareth Evans has been discussed but whether he is the right fit is unknown; he’s probably more of a South African-style flanker. Hunt has been ear-tagged so he may well be the player they go for.



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