Johannesburg - There are some who are saying it is not official, but if the All Blacks are to be prevented from winning the Tri-Nations trophy in 2010, it definitely won’t be the Springboks who stop them.
Australia can still theoretically ruin their party if they beat the Kiwis in their next two matches, something that looked most unlikely when the All Blacks scored seven tries against them en route to a 49-28 victory in Melbourne at the weekend. Even then, the Wallabies would have to rely on the Springboks winning the August 21 showdown between the two old rivals in Soweto.
But the Springboks cannot retain their trophy for even if they won with a four try bonus point in each of their remaining three matches, the massive points differential between them and the All Blacks would mean they would have to win each of those games by scores that just aren’t realistic, and the All Blacks would have to go the rest of the competition without even a solitary bonus point.
The Boks probably knew it was all over when they lost in Brisbane, and maybe it is a good thing that Melbourne put them out of their misery, for it does mean the “dead rubber” Tests that will make up the rest of their Tri-Nations season can be used for experimentation.
On the evidence of the latest All Black win, the New Zealanders have gone some distance ahead of their other two southern hemisphere rivals, a fact that is quite bizarre if you consider how South Africa dominated the Super 14 and how the local Super 14 teams dominated Kiwi opposition.
Quite obviously the biggest decision the Springboks have to make before they even select their team for the match against the All Blacks is what kind of rugby they are going to employ in the remaining matches.
There have been calls for them to radically reinvent themselves, and there is no doubt the All Blacks, and Australia for that matter, are playing the game at a significantly quicker tempo than the Boks. At the same time however, there may be some sense in the call from some rugby thinkers, most notably Saracens coach Brendan Venter in the Sunday media, to resist the temptation to make the reinvention too radical.
He is right when he says the Bulls and Stormers dominated the Super 14 with a game-plan which was still based quite heavily around kicking strategy – and the Super 14 was played to the new law interpretations. And it is also true that New Zealand are doing more kicking than many people suspect they are.
In the second Test against South Africa in Wellington they hardly kicked a single ball in the first half, but then they were playing into a strong wind at the time. In the second half of that game they kicked a lot more, and they do rely heavily on turn-overs through opposition mistakes like the Boks did last year. A high proportion of their tries against Australia were the product of elementary errors.
Richie McCaw was the man of the match in Melbourne, and his domination of the breakdowns also brought home another point – this is an aspect of the game that the Boks are going to have to give massive attention to before the home leg.
They cannot just blame the referees for the way the breakdown battle is turning out, for with a South African referee in charge in this latest match, there was not a lot of adaptation evident from the New Zealand and Australians as they switched from the Irish referees.
Unfortunately for the Boks their best fetcher, Heinrich Brussow, is out injured, and the one player in the squad that toured overseas was dropped after the Wellington Test. But Francois Louw did show a significant improvement on his first outing against the All Blacks in Auckland, and in retrospect, leaving him out for Brisbane was a massive mistake.
Juan Smith has proved his fitness in the Currie Cup and should be considered a certainty for the home matches, but with Schalk Burger no longer playing too the ball to the extent that he used to, the probable back row of Burger, Smith and Pierre Spies which has done well in the past now appears to lack balance.
Unless they go for an out and out fetcher like Jacques Botes, the other South African player in the Louw mould is Jean Deysel, who made an impressive return to rugby after an injury lay-off in the latter stages of the Sharks’ match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein at the weekend.
Of course, hooker Bismarck du Plessis's anticipated return this weekend at Currie Cup level should also be watched closely, for apart from bringing much needed mobility – and regardless of how much they adjust their game, there is no debate that the Boks do need to be quicker – Du Plessis is also excellent in scavenging for the ball on the ground.
Du Plessis’s inclusion would not necessarily mean John Smit’s place in the team is under threat – he was excellent at loosehead for the Sharks in the Super 14 and the Boks wouldn’t lose anything if he made the switch across to the No 1 jersey.