A tournament worthy of rivalling both the British and Irish Lions’ tour and the Six Nations in terms of quality, this year’s Rugby Championship was every bit the rugby pageant that audiences were hoping for.
Showcasing the best that the Southern Hemisphere has to offer, New Zealand eventually eked out a much-deserved second consecutive title while maintaining a pristine winning record in the competition.
However, while it may have been business as usual for Steve Hansen and his men, the tournament generated a host of learning points for each side, some of which are less surprising than others.
Pumas Slowly But Surely Getting Into Their Stride
Twelve losses from 12 and things aren’t getting much better for the Argentine record at the Rugby Championship.
The Pumas opened this summer’s campaign by conceding 73 points against South Africa and ended it almost as miserably, conceding 54 points to Australia—and not even an in-form Australia, at that.
However, looking more closely at everything in between those two poles, there are reasons for Santiago Phelan’s side to be hopeful of what’s to come, as they showed brief glimpses of their potential.
Throughout the Championship, what rang truest with the South Americans was their ability to play tremendously, but rarely for sustained lengths of time.
Speaking to reporters after the competition, per Reuters, Phelan stated that:
The team grew in solidity and seriousness, we took a big step forward in the set pieces and discipline. We still have to improve our ball retention (and) physical fitness so we can withstand the game our opponents play and that we want to play.
The coach is just in his assessment, and all those criteria listed are very curable as opposed to a stigma such as simply not having the skills necessary to compete.
Argentina are producing fine rugby footballers. In Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, they have one of the world’s finest back rowers; in Juan Figallo, one of its brightest emerging prospects in the front row and the list of pocketed stars doesn’t end there.
With time, the South American minnows will come to challenge for honours above that which they’re looking at now, but it will admittedly take a great deal of patience.
Australia Could Be Down Under For Some Time
In the wake of Robbie Deans’ dismissal following the 2-1 series loss to the British and Irish Lions earlier this year, Ewen McKenzie was always going to have a tough time at his first Championship.
This is the maiden voyage for the 51-times capped former Australian international in coaching the Wallabies side—at least as chief of the team, having served as assistant coach between 2000 and 2003—and growing pains are entirely acceptable.
However, even the excuse of settling into a new side can only last so long for a nation of Australia’s stature, where results must be demanded at some point.
McKenzie now faces an incredibly tough run of the calendar, offering the former Queensland Reds boss no time for respite.
In less than a fortnight’s time, he faces a third Bledisloe Cup encounter with dominant Rugby Championship victors New Zealand, before then travelling north and facing England, Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales on their spring tour.
With that list of fixtures ahead, things don’t look entirely hopeful for a nation in some disarray, although the Round 6 win over Argentina was a hopeful note to finish on.
In a way, James O’Connor being released from his ARU contract for off-pitch matters summarises the need for a fresh start under McKenzie, who must swiftly decide what it is he wants from this new-look Wallabies side before clutching it with both hands.
Heyneke Meyer Has A Trick Or Two Up His Sleeve
Always the most likely outfit to challenge New Zealand for silverware this summer if ever there was to be one, South Africa didn’t surprise many in running the All Blacks (fairly) close to the wire.
What may have taken spectators aback slightly was the manner in which that came about.
Down the years, the Springboks have become noted for their attritional, possibly even turgid, style of play, happy to settle for a win, regardless of how that eventuality comes about.
Little by little, South Africa would regularly edge their opponents out and regularly by the finest of margins, never truly being renowned for the most attractive of playing ways.
Although aspects of that South Africa remain, a new South Africa is rising under Heyneke Meyer and was perhaps best portrayed in the climactic finale against New Zealand.
At Ellis Park, the Johannesburg hosts came out of the blocks firing, perhaps unsurprising considering they needed a four-try bonus point in order to even start thinking about winning the Championship title.
However, this expansive and fanciful approach was sustained long after the early injury blow of seeing Bryan Habana go off thanks to some explosive back displays through the likes of Jean De Villiers, Willie Le Roux and Zane Kirchner.
With this new, more attractive batch of energetic Springboks, Meyer’s men have shown the capacity to thrive in a variety of strategies—not a bad weapon to have in the arsenal heading into the build-up to a World Cup.
All Blacks Will Continue To Eclipse Their Global Rivals
The least surprising of lessons learned, New Zealand can continue to look at every tournament in their foreseeable future as a possible trophy given the dominance with which they earned back-to-back Rugby Championships.
With their Super Rugby franchises at the head of the curve right now and a steady supply of youngsters ready to compete for any vacancies ready to be vacated by their ageing incumbents,, the All Blacks are in fine shape for the future, to say the least.
Against South Africa in what was rightly dubbed simply “The Final,” Steve Hansen’s side were clinical in tying a second successive victory in Johannesburg, something not many nations can boast.
Although it will take a trial in itself to test, it’s hard to envision just which Northern Hemisphere side might pose a threat to New Zealand right now given the strength so recently showcased.
There’s not an area of the All Blacks’ squad that doesn’t have world-class talents competing for its history-sodden jersey and a number of key individuals—Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Kieran Read among them—will be coming into a prime section of their career come 2015’s England trip.