Cape Town – Remember the days of truly neck-and-neck
Test matches between the Springboks and All Blacks, and the pre-game
difficulties in predicting where one might command supremacy over the other in
the positional battles?
Wags could argue, based on an increasingly
lopsided post-isolation results column in favour of the New Zealanders (38-15,
one draw), that that era is very much a thing of the past anyway.
But if you were a South African wishing to
believe, under the current climate, that the Boks are capable of matching or
even eclipsing their old rivals in 2016, what you had seen from the teams’
respective June international tasks thus far would hardly give you grounds for
fresh hope as the Rugby Championship sneaks ever closer.
If anything, the first two Tests of the All
Blacks’ series against Wales (they lead by an unassailable 2-0) and the opening
pair by the Boks against notably under-strength Ireland (1-1), only hint that
New Zealand will pile further angst on South Africa this year.
The world champions haven’t entirely
reached their sparkling best yet, but nevertheless put the Welsh away by 18 and
14 points respectively, leaving Steve Hansen the luxury of fielding a very experimental
combo for the dead rubber in Dunedin on Saturday.
What has been particularly ominous, from a
South African point of view, is the gulf in quality between the traditional
foes thus far, even if it is obviously not ideal to make comparisons when they
aren’t directly up against each other, and it does have to be taken into
account that the Boks are adjusting to life under a new coach.
But think about the various departments on
the field: where can you suggest with conviction, on this very day, that the
Boks are either level or superior to the All Blacks on paper?
Here’s my own appraisal:
The Boks are struggling here, especially
with the still classy and committed Bryan Habana absent (at least for the time
being). Willie le Roux and JP Pietersen are well short of their best levels,
whilst Lwazi Mvovo had a defensive shocker for 40 minutes in Johannesburg
before debutant Ruan Combrinck provided welcome doses of urgency and skill. As
for NZ, in the ever-silky Ben Smith at fullback and muscular speedsters like
Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea patrolling the wider regions, there are simply
no woes (unless you can somehow, routinely get their wingers going backwards,
of course). Advantage: NZ.
Considering that they have had to replace
both Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu this year, the All Blacks seem to be doing just
fine, thanks, via relative newcomers like Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty … and
a certain ‘SBW’ available again for the Championship soon. The Boks? Damian de
Allende remains worryingly below his glittering 2015 mojo, with defensive
issues evident, whilst Lionel Mapoe has been solid rather than spectacular as
he acclimatises to the outside channel at Test level. Advantage: NZ.
It’s fairly reassuring to see the sparky
Lions duo of Faf de Klerk (largely convincing at No 9 thus far) and Elton
Jantjies starting to work their magic at the next tier up, even if the Coetzee
tactical template differs a bit from the Johan Ackermann one. Hopefully
consistent selection will bring even greater rewards from the pair soon? But
they still play second fiddle, I’d say, to the sublime Aaron Smith at scrumhalf
for the All Blacks and either of Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett in the No 10
shirt. Advantage: NZ.
This has been a department where the Boks,
usually so blessed with resources and used to dominating most foes, have been
dreadfully disappointing in the first two June Tests. Both of the usually
gnarly Duane Vermeulen (also injury-impeded, mind) and Francois Louw have been
well less than special, and Siya Kolisi is similarly getting too much wrong –
like losing the ball in contact – as a blindside flank. There is a fairly
rightful clamour for Messrs Whiteley and Kriel to pep things up more
meaningfully in a once-proud area. Meanwhile new NZ skipper Kieran Read has
been awesome at No 8 against Wales, and scribes in that country are already
raving in the early post-McCaw era about the value Sam Cane and Ardie Savea
bring as open-side marauders. Advantage (especially sadly!): NZ.
Phew, at least we can say here’s one
department where the Boks look handsomely stocked for the entire cycle to RWC
2019. Stormers powerhouses Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit are now
imposing themselves as a combo at Test level too, Lood de Jager is in the wings
albeit crocked right now, and Franco Mostert shone as a valiant workhorse in a few
late minutes off the splinters at Ellis Park last weekend. The All Blacks are
hardly poorly served by premier pair Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano … but for
broader resources at present, the SA picture is arguably more promising.
Another area where the Boks historically
like to walk (or is it stomp?) with a special swagger, it’s been less than
plain sailing against Ireland thus far, hasn’t it? Tendai Mtawarira rather
idles along at loosehead, highly-rated Frans Malherbe has been leaking
expensive penalties in the No 3 shirt, and the debate around whether new
captain Adriaan Strauss possesses the aura of France-based Bismarck du Plessis
at hooker still rages as he’s been below par performance-wise. With Dane Coles
on the up and up in NZ’s No 2 jersey and a solid core of props, I’m afraid the
Boks can’t currently claim supremacy. Advantage: NZ.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing