Cape Town - The well-subscribed theory that the All Blacks, while still warranting deep respect, are in the beginning stages of tangible decline is about to be put to the most acid of tests.
Suddenly the RWC 2019 knockout draw looks a fair old stinker indeed for the defending champions, already unprecedented Webb Ellis Cup winners twice in a row and bidding for a sublime hat-trick in 2019.
Beating the Springboks right up front in group play to engineer top spot in Pool B has seen them “rewarded” with a minefield route that first involves Ireland (not the fixture expected for them at the outset of the tournament, let’s face it), then quite possibly England in a semi-final ... and perhaps on to old foes the Boks again in the final at Yokohama on November 2.
We all know that the time-honoured bilateral rivalry with South Africa is back to a near 50-50 situation after a protracted spell of depressing, massive NZ dominance, and against that backdrop I have little doubt that if you offered Steve Hansen the lead-up option of the Boks’ first two knockout matches - Japan, then Wales - rather than his team’s possible dates in the space of a week against a pair of traditional Six Nations heavyweights, he would grab the swap gleefully.
Both Ireland and England are capable of giving the All Blacks a particularly murderous scrap in the pack area, and will bring a strong sense of physicality more broadly, with the potential for leaving Kieran Read and company noticeably, accumulatively battered and bruised for the showpiece, whoever they may end up duelling there.
Quite a lot of money will be going on the Boks providing that opposition now, despite their own perils along the remaining journey.
Even if Rassie Erasmus’s outfit didn’t go all the way to the final, a possible All Black encounter with Wales there would mean the cup-holders having to repel all of the clear-cut best three teams in the most recent Six Nations competition in rapid succession to retain the World Cup crown (France, Scotland and Italy had very much made up the bottom half of the 2019 annual northern hemisphere pride-and-joy event).
For all the rightful hype and adulation around Japan earning a maiden quarter-final ticket, the host nation will test the Boks more through resourcefulness, the desired tempo of their play and team spirit than in giving them a true “bone-crunching experience”, if you like … and that should stand Rassie Erasmus’s side in fairly good stead for suitable freshness in a semi a week later if they do (and they should!) overcome the Brave Blossoms hurdle.
Yes, if it is to become of relevance for much longer at RWC 2019, I believe I would rather be in the shoes of Erasmus than Hansen at this point ...
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