One round into the Rugby Championship and I remain as convinced as I was in June that the Springboks can beat the All Blacks and win the competition.
The All Blacks were outstanding against a Wallabies side with more bark than bite.
It was a really impressive New Zealand display. Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read are without comparison in the All Blacks in their respective positions. If either is not available the All Blacks pack loses 50 percent of its grunt, mongrel and presence.
Those who back up Retallick and especially Read are simply not in the class of the two All Blacks.
New Zealand remain favourites on performance and also on historical form. However, the Springboks are building a pack of forwards that can negate New Zealand’s strength up front. The Springboks have greater depth in numbers one to eight than the New Zealanders.
And what the South African series against England showed was that the Springboks can select two very different pack of forwards and still be equally effective.
Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx, like Retallick and Read, are players without equal in the Springboks tight five. But those who back them up are very good players, who I’d select ahead of the reserves strength in the All Blacks squad.
The All Blacks are the pace setters in world rugby and they have been for the past decade. They’re a brilliant side, but (as I wrote in my June column) they have vulnerability in depth among the lock and loose-forward positions.
Few teams in the last decade have managed to consistently put the heat on the All Blacks pack. The Springboks of 2009 did it and won three successive Tests against the All Blacks. The Springboks couldn’t sustain the dominance and a year later the All Blacks restored order with a three-nil Test return.
Rassie Erasmus’s pack of 2018 is starting to mirror the presence of the magnificent 2009 Springboks - a team All Blacks legend Richie McCaw rated the best team he had faced in his 149-Test career.
The Springboks weren’t as fluent as the All Blacks in the first-round action, but it wasn’t the type of Test that was ever going to produce fluency. It was a brutal physical battle between two of the biggest packs in the game - and the Springboks were comfortable victors in the collisions and in the set piece.
The All Blacks a year ago battled with Argentina’s physicality at home and on the hour trailed the Pumas. They were also kept scoreless for a long period in the return Test in Buenos Aires.
Teams that pressure the All Blacks through their forwards and also stifle the quickness of their recycled ball, have managed to beat them. It sounds easy but it isn’t as easy to find a team with the pack capable of doing this to the All Blacks; equally the quality loose-forwards who specialise playing to the ball. The British and Irish Lions were an exception and so too the Springboks who lost by a point at Newlands in 2017.
Australia, in beating the All Blacks in Brisbane last year, also showed that if the physicality and intensity can be sustained for 80 minutes, a victory is indeed a possibility.
The Springboks were good in scoring six tries against the Pumas. They could have had a few more. Handre Pollard’s indifferent goalkicking also meant 13 points were lost. It was a game that could easily have reflected a 50-pointer for the Boks.
It will be tough in Mendoza but the Springboks will triumph. The key for them is to get the five league points and stay in touch with the All Blacks, who are likely to beat Australia with a bonus point in Auckland.
I expected more of Australia and felt they could win in Sydney. I got that one wrong with a capital W.
I can see the championship being decided in the final round at Loftus when the All Blacks visit South Africa.
And I can see the Springboks winning. I think they’ll run the All Blacks close in Wellington but I don’t know if the belief is quite there yet to win. The nature of that battle will instill in the Springboks the necessary to finally get a win against the old enemy.
There’s the small hurdle of Australia in Australia, but the Springboks in Durban did enough to keep the faith and reinforce the belief that we will finally see reward when the All Blacks come to town.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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