The Springboks put in three impressive performances to win the Rugby Championship, crucially showing strength in character and depth.
Rassie Erasmus took a gamble by sending several key players to New Zealand ahead of time, leaving an inexperienced side to host Australia. However, it paid off as the Springboks beat the Wallabies 35-17 and came away with a 16-16 draw against New Zealand.
Then came arguably the most assured performance of them all in a 46-13 away drubbing of Argentina. The Springbok forwards bullied Los Pumas and Handré Pollard had a superb game from flyhalf. Makazole Mapimpi also had a great game having faced criticism — much of it harsh — for his performance against New Zealand.
It all could have been so different, as Argentina took a 7-0 lead within two minutes. South Africa looked nervous early on, but they shook off the early jitters and defended superbly for the rest of the match.
This is undoubtedly a Springbok team which has some issues to iron out, but they are improving on a weekly basis and appear to be peaking at the right time after a turbulent four years.
Michael Cheika’s men grew into the tournament as it progressed, ultimately proving themselves capable of coping without Israel Folau.
The versatile fullback was sacked by Rugby Australia following a series of homophobic social media posts. He could have few legitimate complaints (although he would attempt to make many). To their credit, his former international teammates realised that the show had to go on.
Tom Banks and Kurtley Beale each got starts under their belt in the number 15 jersey. The former was the preferred option for the dismal 35-17 defeat to South Africa and the latter for the wins over Argentina and New Zealand.
The 16-10 victory over Los Pumas was a scrappy affair, but the Wallabies showed their class in the 47-26 win over the All Blacks. It could have been a different game had Scott Barrett not been sent off in the closing stages of the first half, but Australia were the better side even before that.
The All Blacks were lacklustre in all three matches, spelling trouble for Steve Hansen’s side. However, they have the resources to bounce back and should still be counted among the favourites for the World Cup.
It is worth noting that New Zealand have won every Tri-Nations and Rugby Championship tournament since 2010 except those in World Cup years. Still, they recovered from missing out on the 2011 and 2015 prizes to win the Webb Ellis Cup back to back.
It is difficult to summarise the various factors which have set the All Blacks apart from Southern Hemisphere opponents over the past decade. However, two which deserve attention are their knack for taking chances and their strong mentality as a unit.
The All Blacks showed signs of these traits even during a poor Rugby Championship campaign. Against South Africa, they were bossed for much of the first half, but went into the break ahead thanks to a Jack Goodhue try. New Zealand also could have capitulated against Australia following Scott Barrett’s red card, but instead gave the Wallabies a good fight.
However, it has been some time since the All Blacks looked so rudderless for three consecutive matches. Their discipline will have to improve and the 38 missed tackles against Australia will also be of concern to Hansen.
Los Pumas ran New Zealand and Australia close in scrappy contests and showed flashes of brilliance against the Springboks, but they still simply do too much wrong.
It is no surprise that the team with the worst rates for tackles won (78.1%), scrums won (80%) and rucks won (95%) finished bottom of the Rugby Championship. For all their flair, Argentina only scored three tries all tournament.
The lack of killer instinct among Mario Ledesma’s men was particularly evident against South Africa. The Springboks halted several attacking lineout mauls in their tracks and Los Pumas let frustration get the better of them, throwing away near-certain tries due to sloppy errors.
Argentinian rugby has undoubtedly progressed since the 2015 World Cup. However, they are not yet ready to really trouble the world rugby superpowers at this year’s tournament in Japan. DM
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