Boks, NZ clear front-runners?

Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Desperately early into Castle Rugby Championship 2013 combat we may be, but world champions New Zealand and a back-on-the-rise South Africa have sent out powerful signals already that they are the likeliest candidates for the title.

Both the Boks and All Blacks were basking in comprehensive first-round glory on Sunday after respective slaughters (or at least in Sydney, nearly so) of Argentina and Australia.

Heyneke Meyer’s charges, showing elements of the ruthlessness and hunger that brought a second World Cup to these shores under Jake White’s tenure in 2007 and the runaway 2009 Tri-Nations spoils during the Peter de Villiers period, set a new record for lopsided victories in the fledgling four-nation competition by seeing off the unexpectedly motley Pumas 73-13 at FNB Stadium.

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The result would have sent at least some sense of shockwave through spines in the Land of the Long White Cloud, had it not been for the fact that the All Blacks -- with Richie McCaw back in charge in every possible sense – were massively on song themselves against their Trans-Tasman rivals, winning 47-29.

While Jean de Villiers and company deserved all the credit they got for issuing the gradually more lethal poison that crippled the South Americans on the Highveld – running in nine tries in the process – the New Zealanders at the very least matched that majesty by registering six of their own, on the road, against stronger opponents at ANZ Stadium.

While the Boks obviously look in particularly fine fettle in the “for and against” column and lead the table for that reason after round one, the All Blacks should rightly feel that they made an even bigger statement by easily banking a full house of five points in Sydney.

After all, not too many sides go to Australia and register four tries or more against the Wallabies, and South Africans need to keep soberly in mind that the Boks have only ever managed a bonus-point win once there, throughout the history of the old Tri-Nations or newly-constituted Championship.

That was in the afore-mentioned surge to the 2009 Tri-Nations crown, when they won 32-25 in Perth, one of their more productive Aussie hunting grounds, and crossed the whitewash the necessary four times (Bryan Habana twice).

The Boks ended third, behind both effortless winners New Zealand and also the Australians, last year and have, in fact, surrendered five of their last six Test matches against the Wallabies.

Their away clash in the Championship this year (September 7) is also scheduled for Brisbane, so often a “Heartbreak Hotel” for South Africa, who have not won in the city since 1971.

And yet it is impossible not to suspect that the Boks of 2013 are at the very least capable of running the All Blacks close this time, and improving on last year’s disappointing “bronze” with only the debut-making Pumas behind them.

Certainly there appears to be every chance that both South Africa and New Zealand will secure back-to-back wins this weekend, when they play return fixtures against the sides they walloped on Saturday – and thus ensuring powerful leads on the log.

It will take a quite spectacular swing for the Argentineans to turn around the 60-point pasting at FNB Stadium in Mendoza (21:10 SA time), whilst the All Blacks must be chipper about their chances of knocking over Australia all over again on home turf in Wellington (09:35).

The Boks will have to be significantly on their guard, of course, because the Pumas were so inept in Johannesburg that their noisy, partisan fans will insist on some kind of backlash on Argentinean soil – and at a venue where the Boks were so lucky to steal a draw only last year.

You can bet the players will be hurting, too, although the Pumas were weakened in their tight five (usually a key area of competitiveness for them) even before Saturday’s one-sided clash with the Boks and their woes were compounded when seasoned lock Patricio Albacete limped off after only 13 minutes.

The country simply does not have the depth of replacement talent South Africa, for instance, can muster in times of need, and if their engine room is ailing personnel-wise, they will be ripe for dismantling by most of the stronger nations on the IRB ladder.

It could also be argued that the Boks got their wakeup call about the hazards of tackling the Pumas in any their own lairs last season, and will be less susceptible to ambush now.

The current SA squad seems encouragingly focused and well-grounded, especially as several incumbent starting players know they have high-quality challengers champing at the bit from the bench.

“Seven days is a long time in rugby,” impressive skipper De Villiers reportedly said after the 73-13 massacre, in a reminder to his troops that the slate is clean once more for the immediate rematch and complacency will not be tolerated.

The Boks appear to have a collectively clean bill of health after the FNB Stadium game, although considering the good vibe in the camp, it was disappointing to learn on Sunday that emerging prop Trevor Nyakane has been axed for undisclosed but “repeated” disciplinary breaches.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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