Rob Houwing

NZ: Boks closing fitness gap?

2014-09-15 07:31
Sport24 Chief Writer Rob Houwing

Cape Town - Just how hard it will be for anyone to topple the All Blacks from their IRB No 1 ranking and also from their World Cup-holding status next year has only been painfully confirmed to all comers.

As it happened: All Blacks v Springboks

Saturday’s nerve-jangling 14-10 triumph over old foes the Springboks at Wellington in the Castle Rugby Championship saw Jean de Villiers’s team produce a performance of immense, bloody-minded commitment and energy ... and still it wasn’t quite enough as the wily New Zealanders made it five wins on the trot against the Boks and a continuation of coach Heyneke Meyer’s personal duck against them.

It was said beforehand, and with some merit, that this All Black team might just be vulnerable at the Cake Tin, given the current absence of such names as Dan Carter, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock and Liam Messam, among others.

That’s before you even take into account the scheduled return to the union fold before year’s end of a certain Sonny Bill Williams and his sizzling strength and off-loading ability in midfield.

And yet the All Blacks still ground this one out, despite the Boks’ so-evident desperation to break the recent hoodoo.

It was a result that massively increased the likelihood that New Zealand will seal a hat-trick of Championship titles since its inception as a four-nation competition in 2012.

A spectacular banana peel result for Richie McCaw’s charges in Argentina in a fortnight is almost certainly required - and bear in mind the Pumas are yet to win in this tournament despite mounting close calls in the three years - if the Boks are to still have a title shout of any kind when they play the All Blacks at Ellis Park on October 4.

Strangely, New Zealand have fared more handsomely against the Argentineans away than at home in both 2012 and 2013, with successive bonus-point wins of 54-15 and 33-15 in South America, so that only seems to stack the odds against a Pumas triumph.

Before that, too, South Africa have to ensure they keep their eye firmly on the ball and earn revenge at Newlands over Australia, currently level-pegging with them on 10 points, six points shy of the leaders.

Nor is there any guarantee at all that the Boks will gain a hugely overdue victory against the mighty men in black on the Highveld: the All Blacks have outlasted their hosts in such conditions each time in the Championship over the last two tournaments (32-16 at FNB Stadium and then 38-27 at Elllis Park) and become decreasingly intimidated by the thin air and hard, fast pitches.

So that’s the largely bleak side of the coin from a Bok point of view.

The shinier perspective is that there can be little doubting how close they ran the world’s supreme power in Wellington this weekend.

“It was nip and tuck until the very last minute ... we are definitely second best team in the world,” said popular pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett in the SuperSport studio by way of upliftment for the long-suffering local public against the NZ nemesis.

And if the Boks could come so gut-wrenchingly close to doing the deal in this instance on NZ terrain, then at the very least we’ve been reminded they will have a puncher’s chance should they meet the champions in the knockout stage of RWC 2015 in the neutral UK.

It is also impossible not to reflect ruefully on the way the Boks were diddled, you might argue, out of a victory in Perth two weeks ago by the curious decision-making of Irish referee George Clancy. Had South Africa won that game, as they should have, they’d have been sitting on 13 points rather than 10 - only three adrift of New Zealand - and prospects would be so much rosier that the Ellis Park showdown could yet decide the title race.

Instead the Boks may well be playing for the psychological comfort alone - though that’s no minor deal, given the urgent need to get one over the All Blacks - in trying to prevail in the Johannesburg clash.

As Mallett reminded, the game may be a dead-rubber affair for the New Zealanders, so that could have some impact on their motivation levels and play quite tidily into South African hands.

Whatever happens, the Boks aren’t in a bad space, a year out from the World Cup: the pack went absolutely toe to toe with the All Black eight, and the hosts got more marked territorial traction simply because they are so much better than any other country at gliding the ball through the hands for swift, enterprising advancement up the field.

But the Boks ought to catch up a bit in that regard, as well, now that the multi-skilled Handre Pollard has made a forceful claim to pull the No 10 strings all the way through to the World Cup: he could become a playmaker of equal importance to fullback Willie le Roux who, remember, had a rare fumbly game on Saturday.

And please ... allow the 20-year-old the odd poor game ahead without jerking your knee, OK?

Next year, all going well, Pollard will also have a desperately overdue, proven high-quality scrumhalf to rely on as timeless inspiration Fourie du Preez makes his intended comeback from injury.

Particularly pleasing, at least to this writer, about the Bok near-miss at the Cake Tin was the very fact that they ended the game notably on the front foot, with a 10-minute siege of the All Black line that might have yielded famous fruits with better composure and luck.

For a team that had been forced to make roughly double the number of tackles in the first half, it seemed a demonstration of praiseworthy, improving stamina and endurance.

The All Blacks love to overwhelm opponents through the sheer tempo of their play; here the Boks stayed with them and perhaps then some.

It’s another healthy sign.

New Zealand remain ahead of South Africa, that’s obvious.

But not by too much to feel significantly cowed ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  rugby championship  |  rugby

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