Cape Town – Who is willing, even just a third of the way through the competition, to bet against New Zealand retaining the Rugby Championship crown in 2018?
You’ve got to either be extraordinarily brave, or possibly still groggy after being decked by a right hook and tick the wrong box for your title-winner from the quartet.
With certain ebullient, NZ-based scribes already suggesting the engraver can get busy on the Webb Ellis Cup (for World Cup 2019), the southern-hemisphere event truly looks a fait accompli again this year despite the raft of fixtures still to negotiate.
Indeed, things seem firmly on course for the All Blacks, boasting bonus-point victories from both matches against Australia, to yet again – and remarkably -- earn around double the tournament points their nearest rivals get.
That has been roughly the case in each of the last two seasons: in 2017, NZ won all six matches and bagged 28 points (Australia were a distant second with 15), and in 2016 it was even more of a gulf.
Then, the All Blacks had a perfect tournament mathematically, banking the very maximum of 30 points – so bonus-point victories all six times – with the Wallabies a massive 17 points adrift, on 13, and the Boks again having to settle for third (10 points) ahead of Argentina.
So there’s an increasing hallmark of “best of the rest” being the most appealing aspect of the event when it comes to pecking-order issues.
Sadly that is one reason why the Six Nations – admittedly played over a single round -- has somehow seemed more compelling to the rugby neutral than SANZAAR’s Test-level pride and joy (though that is no fault of the administrators, really).
Over the same three-year period (2016-2018), the Six Nations has been significantly tighter, and aided by it not being dominated so outrageously by one team: Ireland won this year’s tournament, to arrest two prior years of English supremacy.
The Pumas’ richly-deserved, though largely unexpected 32-19 triumph over the Boks in Mendoza on Saturday has gone a long way toward scuppering any chance of the 2018 Championship staying “alive” for much more than the next two rounds, potentially leaving more dead-rubber activity at the back end than most would like.
South Africa spectacularly undid their decent work in earning a “full house” win in Durban by getting nothing at all for their troubles, log points-wise, in Mendoza.
To aggravate matters, the mighty All Blacks’ next tussle is at home to the Argentineans, at slightly unfashionable Nelson.
It is their easiest match of the tournament on paper, when you draw on historical patterns, and really should only see them streak further clear of the pack -- and that despite reports they will go slightly “experimental” in team selection.
There’s a case for saying the Pumas will be in decent mental fettle for it after their heroics of the weekend, but an alternative one for suggesting it will only stimulate New Zealand awareness not to slip on the proverbial banana peel.
Remember that Argentina are 0/14 on NZ soil, and were beaten 39-22 and 57-22 respectively in each of their last two visits to that country.
With due respect to the Pumas, it remains likely that the Boks and Wallabies will now be involved in another relatively trademark occurrence in the Championship (at least when it is played at full length outside World Cup years): a tussle between them to finish runners-up.
It is the Aussies who have managed that less auspicious accolade in each of 2017 and 2016, and the suddenly embattled Bok coach Rassie Erasmus will claw back some rightful approval within his own country if his charges can snatch “silver” this year, assuming the NZ freight train doesn’t spectacularly derail.
Erasmus is right when he describes the looming Wallabies v Boks match (Brisbane, September 8) as a “win at all costs” affair now.
Certainly the losers of that scrap between fragile powers are going to look even more lamentably like lame ducks in relation to the world champions; the winners at least in with an increasingly rosy chance of second spot in the 2018 competition …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing