The Kiwi verdict on a Bok win
OPINION: Rugbypass columnist Ben Smith dissects Springboks and All Blacks’ current form in Europe.
Reservations around the All Blacks under Ian Foster still exist, despite an overall successful season so far this year.
The performances have at times been brilliant when the opposition played right into their hands, as the Wallabies and Wales did.
However, a tactically awful game against the Springboks in Townsville was the first to show New Zealand’s flaws and keep doubts in check.
The rematch a week later was a much better contest, yet the All Blacks buckled with the game essentially in the bag to give the Springboks one last chance to take the win.
A lacklustre performance from the All Blacks’ ‘B’ side against Italy on the weekend furthered the concerns lingering around about where this squad is after the ‘A’ team obliterated a depleted Welsh side in Cardiff the week beforehand.
There were quality players on that field in Rome that made uncharacteristically basic errors that they just don’t when playing for the Chiefs or Crusaders in Super Rugby.
For that reason, questions get put on the coaching staff as the public expects more of such talent.
After an underwhelming 2020 season, the All Blacks have plenty to do to answer those questions, but the performances like those against Italy and the Springboks leave those queries unanswered.
The public knows they are a good side, but that goes with the territory with the All Blacks. What they want to see are dominant victories against quality opposition to develop full belief that this squad is a great one.
These doubts exist in spite of the fact the All Blacks unassumingly sit with a win-loss record of 12-1 on the year, which is the best record of any test side in the 2021 calendar year.
Against only tier one competition, their 8-1 record is better than that of the Springboks (6-4), Scotland (4-2), the Wallabies (6-5), France (5-4), Ireland (3-2) and Wales (4-4-1) similarly against tier one.
The Springboks have already proven they are not a dominant nor historically great side this year, despite being put on a pedestal as a mythical beast of the game.
Just scraping by against a stout yet seriously undermanned Welsh outfit is further proof that South Africa are a determined, but fortuitous side, playing a 50-50 game plan that keeps game close but isn’t reliable.
As we have seen, they will invariably swallow some losses along the way and they almost took another in Cardiff after failing to take the lead for 70-odd minutes in an unconvincing display.
They won’t get embarrassed on the scoreboard, but cannot dominate many teams and put them away by 20 consistently, if at all. Many of their wins could have fallen the other way, just like their losses.
That the Springboks are not a great side does not mean the All Blacks are automatically one either, despite a better record against tier one teams this year.
You’d be hard pressed to find many in New Zealand who believe this 2021 All Blacks side is great one, yet. The trumpets are not being blown for them the same way as the vuvuzelas are for the Springboks in South Africa.
Most would see New Zealand’s upcoming tests against Ireland and France as both losable fixtures or, at the very least, uncertain outcomes as opposed to the inevitability of the last two weeks.
The All Blacks-France test in Paris has drawn most of the excitement and anticipation, yet it is Ireland under Andy Farrell that pose an equally difficult challenge, and the fact that they are flying under the radar should put Foster’s team on notice.
For all the hype surrounding France’s revival, centred around a young core of stars such as Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they are yet to win any silverware in this era. It would seem France are still France that blow hot and cold.
Despite a fast start to the Six Nations last year, they flamed out at Murrayfield and conceded the title to England. England then claimed the Autumn Nations Cup in November when France sent what was basically a ‘C’ team to the final.
To start Andy Farrell’s era, Ireland started that 2020 Six Nations campaign 2-0 and were still a chance to claim the title heading into the final round when the tournament restarted, needing a big win over Les Bleus and came up short 35-27.
This year, both sides finished second and third once again, with France squeezing a tight 15-13 win over the Irish at home.
On the basis of their competitiveness in those fixtures and competitions, Ireland are as much of a chance as France to hand the All Blacks a loss this week, and recent history is in their favour.
The Irish will likely once again rise to try and ambush the All Blacks in Dublin without the pressure of expectation.
New Zealand’s last visit there was a famous loss in 2018, and they had a point to prove in 2016 after the famous defeat in Chicago. Three years before that, the All Blacks escaped defeat with Ryan Crotty’s last-ditch try and Aaron Cruden’s clutch sideline kick.
It has not been easy in the slightest for the All Blacks playing Ireland in Dublin, and, although they haven’t won headlines, Farrell’s side possess an edge similar to that of their coach.
They have not suffered a heavy defeat since their World Cup quarterfinal at the hands of the All Blacks two years ago, and they aren’t likely to go down as they did that night in Tokyo.
Scotland’s win over the Wallabies further adds credibility to the claim that we have five-to-six teams in test rugby that can all beat each other on the day, with no clear-cut dominant team. Home advantage counts for a lot between them. Ireland and France can further that idea by knocking the All Blacks’ 2021 win record down a few percentage points.
Perhaps we are entering a golden era of test rugby heading into the 2023 World Cup given there is parity at the top in 2021 and matches depend on the finest of margins.
The lack of cross-hemisphere clashes have clouded this possibility, but November’s Nations Series may shine a light on it.
The All Blacks aren’t dominant like they used to be, while the Springboks never were as dominant as they were made out to be.
The Wallabies are back, Scotland are legitimate contenders, as are Ireland and France, and Wales – as Six Nations champions but with a decimated pack – pushed the Springboks to the brink with far fewer resources at their disposal.
England aren’t even in the conversation yet after a horror Six Nations, but you can’t discount them turning things around with the might of the RFU behind them. They have the chance to prove themselves against Australia and South Africa this month.
If the All Blacks want to set a marker down as the leader of the pack, then wins over the next two weeks are a must to finish the year 10-1 against tier one nations. Doing so may finally start build some credit for Foster.
Failing in either clash will ensure that reservations about him and his team will persist in 2022.
Failing in both will categorically show there are no clear-cut favourites for 2023.
By Ben Smith, Rugbypass