The top two by a mile

AMIDST the fanfare, hype and euphoria that followed Wayne Barnes’ final whistle to the Ellis Park epic at the weekend, there was one glaring omission – surely the All Blacks should have got to parade the Castle Lager Rugby Championship trophy that they had already clinched the previous weekend?

You would imagine that had the roles been reversed, and South Africa had lost the final battle but won the war, they would have celebrated in defeat in the same way that the Proteas did after their losing end to an otherwise winning cricket test series in Sydney in early 2009.

Had the All Blacks got to also make a lap of the field with the trophy held aloft while the Boks, deservedly, were receiving the acclaim of their supporters, it would have been fitting for it is possible to argue that Ellis Park was a game where there were no losers and where that old cliché “rugby was the winner” really did hold true.

As their captain, Richie McCaw, acknowledged afterwards, the Kiwis will be hurting. Defeat is a big thing for a team when it hasn’t lost in 22 starts, and when there has only been one prior defeat in the previous 40 odd games. But he will probably also readily agree with his former coach Graham Henry that perhaps they did need to lose ahead of the World Cup just to ensure focus on areas that might require some work.

And if the Kiwis are to lose, they would probably rather it was against South Africa than any other team, with the massive respect they have for the Boks being underlined by a tweet that was sent by the All Black side before the game acknowledging their “mighty opponents” as “gladiators” on the field but “gentlemen” off it.

The All Blacks did lose at Ellis Park, but it was close enough for them to not feel any massive psychological dent, and with the first half possibly being the Boks’ finest of the Heyneke Meyer era, the Kiwis were understandably in a realistic mood afterwards. That they were in a position to still win the game at the end after being so battered and outplayed earlier was an indicator of their character, class and fortitude.

“There isn’t much between these teams,” said All Black skipper Richie McCaw.

Indeed, on the evidence of this year, you would have to agree. With the All Blacks winning by just four points in Wellington, and the Boks by two at Ellis Park, there were just two points between the sides over 160 minutes. That does represent a quantum leap forward for the Boks, and although they did lose to Australia in Perth, there were mitigating circumstances in that match.

In the end, the difference between the Boks winning the Championship and coming second was down to the yellow card that referee George Clancy brandished at Bryan Habana that changed the momentum late in the game in Perth, and of course Morne Steyn’s failure to find touch with a penalty.

So it was close, damn close in the end, and the way that the Boks have closed the gap is good for the game as the All Black dominance was starting to make world rugby too predictable. One year out from the next World Cup, there is suddenly good reason to argue that there won’t be a team travelling there as overwhelming favourites.

England, the hosts of the event and the previous team to beat New Zealand, has to be factored into the equation, and we will know more about their chances after the northern hemisphere autumn internationals. But in the final analysis, the way the Championship log looked at the end of it probably sums up the world rugby pecking order right now – the All Blacks are slightly ahead of the Boks, but those two are miles ahead of the rest (All Blacks 22 points, Boks 19, Australia 11).

This past weekend didn’t just include one significant moment in the form of the Boks going through the mental barrier that needed to be traversed against the All Blacks for them to head into next year with the necessary confidence, it included two. Argentina, after three years of trying and several times of coming close, has finally claimed a win in the competition.

Australia, who after a promising start – for we shouldn’t forget their draw with the All Blacks in the opening round – have now lost all the momentum they looked to be gaining under the coaching of Ewen McKenzie, and more failures in the north during November could well plunge them into crisis.

That is if they are not in crisis already, for there have been reports that the players and coaching staff are not all happy campers, and that isn’t just a reference to the latest Kurtley Beale incident that stole the headlines ahead of this past weekend’s game.

The Wallabies did win in Perth and they were competitive for an hour in Cape Town, but they are a considerable distance behind New Zealand and South Africa, who after Ellis Park are undeniably the world’s two best teams and the teams you would most want to see playing each other. It makes it a pity that the World Cup draw for next year has been done in such a way to make it likely that they will clash in a semi-final rather than a final.

It would be fitting to see these two sides slug it out for world rugby’s grand prize and not in a semifinal. If they produce a semifinal game as intense, bruising and fast paced as the one at Ellis Park, the winner will go into the final at a disadvantage as the players would have played themselves to a standstill…

Weekend Castle Lager Rugby Championship Results

 

South Africa 27 New Zealand 25
Argentina 21 Australia 17-www.supersport.com

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