Boks: Road to title steepens
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – It is some consolation for the Springboks, beaten for the first time in the Castle Rugby Championship this season, that the 2013 race should still go to the wire.
That likelihood would make a pleasant change from last year when the All Blacks, Saturday’s 29-15 victors at Eden Park, romped to the title with massive 14-point superiority on the table to both Australia and South Africa.
All that was left in the last couple of rounds then was to see whether New Zealand could actually lose their 100 percent win record – and they didn’t, rounding off their campaign with a 54-15 triumph over Argentina in La Plata and 32-16 defeat of the Boks in Johannesburg.
This time, the trophy’s destination may well only be determined in round six -- even if Jean de Villiers’s team must first make very sure they don’t take their eye complacently off the ball against the Wallabies in game five at Newlands in a fortnight.
Given the highly controversial drawback – Frenchman Romain Poite is the new refereeing dirty word in South Africa – of playing the bulk of the Auckland slug-out with the crippling disadvantage of 14 men on the park, there was still enough in the gallant Bok “hang in there” showing to remind that they probably have indeed moved to superior terrain to the Aussies.
They will remain favourites to prevail in Cape Town, and even doing so without a bonus point ought to at least give the Boks a lingering chance of stealing the silverware if they can comprehensively beat the All Blacks in beloved Highveld conditions at Ellis Park.
Let’s quickly chew on the obvious: if New Zealand beat Argentina and the Boks unexpectedly slip up against Australia, it is game over and the final round (SA v NZ, Argentina v Australia) does end up being largely academic.
But a Bok triumph at Newlands and no less anticipated All Black win in La Plata in two weeks’ time keeps the pot boiling for the closing weekend.
That will be the case even in the damaging event from a SA perspective that New Zealand beat Argentina with a bonus point away again – last year they ran in seven tries – and the Boks bank only four points against the Wallabies.
Such a scenario would carry the All Blacks to 23 points, and South Africa to 18. It would still offer up the hope to Heyneke Meyer’s charges that they can channel their indignation over certain events in Auckland into a full-blooded revenge grilling of the world champions by five log points to nil.
That is a tall order, but not completely out of the question, and bear in mind that as things stand the Boks remain superior in for-and-against terms.
Of course they may also find themselves not having to beat New Zealand by an expansive margin if they can beat the Aussies with a full house and the All Blacks earn just four points in La Plata: they would be only three log points in arrears going into the Ellis Park clash under those circumstances.
Psst, what are the chances of the Pumas, who were admirably competitive once again in being squeezed out by one point by tepid Australia in Perth on Saturday, actually knocking over New Zealand?
Stranger things have happened in international rugby, although history strongly suggests the result is unlikely: the All Blacks have won 16 of the all-time 17 meetings between these foes, with just one draw recorded ... and that as far back as 1985 in Buenos Aires.
Contentious incidents or not, both Bok coach Meyer and captain De Villiers probably did the right thing in not making too much of a post-match song and dance of the eccentric officiating at Eden Park, however much they must have been stewing within.
A personal gut feel was that the All Blacks might have demonstrated just enough superiority for composure and smartness on the night to have won – though probably much more narrowly -- even if the Boks hadn’t been knee-capped by the Bismarck du Plessis affair.
“Defensively we were very poor, something we pride ourselves in,” De Villiers quickly conceded afterwards.
What will, undoubtedly, irk the Boks for a while is how Poite and his fellow-officials possibly played a key hand in a “two-point swing”, because a full-complement Bok side might well not have leaked four tries, while possibly also only losing within a seven-point margin.
That 5-0 log haul by the New Zealanders may just be proved decisive when the 2013 Rugby Championship is examined in entirety upon completion ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing