Cape Town - Australia’s 23-18 win over New Zealand in the third dead rubber Bledisloe Cup Test brought the southern hemisphere international season to an end in a way that leaves some intriguing questions hovering ahead of the November tours to the north.
The All Blacks have lost twice since June - once to the British and Irish Lions and now once to Australia - and also drew the final Test against the Lions to leave them looking a lot less invincible than they have during past southern hemisphere seasons. Remember too that they were fortunate to get home against the Springboks two weeks ago and had to rely on a late score to win their second Bledisloe game against Australia in Dunedin.
If you factor out Argentina as a major force, you’d have to say that the All Blacks managed to produce just 160 minutes of the dominating kind of rugby we have become used to from them - one half of their first Test against the Lions, the first half against the Wallabies in Sydney and the two halves of their 57-0 drubbing of the Boks in Albany.
Otherwise it has been nip and tuck and if you look at the season just in terms of results written down on paper, the Kiwi dominance at the highest level of the game has been diminished. Yip, Albany and Sydney showed how unstoppable they can be if you allow them to get momentum, but Brisbane two days ago and Cape Town 14 days before that showed us what can be achieved if you inject the right levels of desperation and passion into your game.
Given that the chasm appears to be closing, should the All Blacks be concerned two years out from the World Cup?
That is debatable.
Ironically the Newlands game, which I watched from the vantage point of a press box that is perched above the field and thus gives you an excellent view of space and how it is manipulated, showed me just how good they are at what they do well.
The pace with which they executed their counter-attacks and the way they played towards space was nothing short of phenomenal, and it was only desperate Bok scramble defence, and the slices of luck they did not enjoy in Albany, that kept the hosts in the game in that first half.
In Brisbane they lacked two things that help the counter-attacking skills that separate them from the rest of the teams - flyhalf Beauden Barrett and a dry field. With Barrett absent, the Wallaby attempts to apply press defence proved successful, while the forward balance between the two sides has been evened out considerably since the early days of the competition.
It hasn’t been an easy season though for the All Blacks in terms of injuries, and that is rightly being viewed as a kind of plus by their coach Steve Hansen. In the sense that it has forced them to dig deep and build depth. The All Blacks have been forced to delve into their second tier and sometimes even third tier of players and yet they have still managed to complete a season that most other teams would envy them for.
After all, they are still the reigning Rugby Championship holders, and they continue their domination of the Bledisloe too. Neither did they lose their series against a very good Lions team.
But while it is way too early to start singing the All Blacks’ epitaph, the past few months have been positive for world rugby, and for Australia and South Africa. Indeed, those doom merchants who still like to see something negative in everything the Boks plan or do, and who would choose to see Newlands as the aberration rather than Albany as the one-off, should consider the following: If you judge success purely by looking at the win, loss and draw column, then the Boks were right up there with the All Blacks in the southern season.
I say that in the sense that both teams lost twice (both Bok defeats were to the All Blacks), with the only separation coming in the draws (the Boks drew twice to Australia while the All Blacks drew once with the Lions). The Bok draws with the Aussies should perhaps be looked at in a different light now that it has become obvious that the Wallabies are a dramatically improved team. They haven’t lost since Dunedin.
Of course, 57-0 was a big blemish. It won’t be forgotten in a hurry and neither should it. But both camps appeared to support my perception after that game that the Boks weren’t really as far away as that result might have indicated, and the closeness of the Cape Town Test didn’t surprise the players as much as it did many supporters and media.
Now come the November Tests and there will be many who will want to read into what ensues between now and December 2, when the Boks round off the autumn internationals against Wales in Cardiff, as a measure of the balance of power between the hemispheres.
That temptation should be resisted. To me one of the factors that might be counting against the All Blacks is fatigue.
In 2009, when the Boks won the series against the Lions and then dominated the Tri-Nations, we saw the South Africans lose it quite badly when they got to the northern hemisphere. You may recall them losing to France in Toulouse and to Ireland at Croke Park, plus the midweek team being beaten by Leicester and Saracens.
It is a big ask to expect a team to just keep going after an icon series like the one against the Lions, and the All Blacks aren’t helped by their ridiculous schedule that saw them play a third game against Australia when the players should really have been resting ahead of the end of year tour.
The Kiwis have a relatively easy tour ahead of them (France, Scotland and Wales) and won’t be playing against England. They should be thankful for that because right now they look like a tired team. That won’t be the case though when the end of this four year cycle is reached in Japan in 2019. Player management and the truncated international schedule in a World Cup year ensures that the global tournament provides a better measurement of the balance of rugby power.
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