Cape Town - Former
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer feels the All Blacks are still well
ahead of their competitors, despite their drawn series with the British
and Irish Lions.
In what he described as a controversial statement, Meyer said the only reason the Lions secured the drawn series was because Sonny Bill Williams was sent off in the second Test in Wellington.
Meyer also believes that current Bok coach Allister Coetzee did the right thing by creating a team with a Super Rugby Lions "spine". He did, however, add that their 3-0 series victory over France was against a weak les Bleus side.
Meyer predicts the now Eben Etzebeth-led Springboks will have a better Rugby Championship campaign this year.
But he maintains that the gap between the All Blacks and the rest was as great as ever and he thinks New Zealand will win the competition.
"The Springboks will definitely be better - they have really improved the coaching team, fitness levels and specifically defence," Meyer told Radio Sport.
"Last year they were struggling with defence, with a lot of defensive coaches coming in and out.
"I feel New Zealand is still the team to beat, and they will take a lot of confidence out of (the Crusaders) winning the Super Rugby final.
"I definitely think the Springboks are better than last year and will play at higher pace. With Warren Whiteley the captain they will work on the culture and you can see the guys playing for each other. They will have a much better championship.
"I don't think the gap is closing, with all due respect. I know I'm putting my foot in it now, but if you look at most of those (Lions touring) games, whenever you have southern hemisphere refs you have quicker ball and that is when the All Blacks are at their best.
"There is a big difference... with northern hemisphere refs, it is always more of an arm wrestle.
"I still believe the All Blacks are the trendsetters. You can't read too much into the Lions tour. New Zealand were on their way to winning the second test, and then the third test would have been totally different. Unfortunately, the incident with Sonny Bill happened.
"If you look at it in perspective, considering midweek games as well, I think it will be total arrogance if you think we have closed the gap with New Zealand.
"I've got so much respect for (NZ rugby) because they never take anything for granted. By the time you catch the All Blacks they are two levels ahead. They are still the trendsetters and it will be difficult to beat them."