2013 Rugby Championship in the rear view mirror (Le Roux gets honorable mention)
October 17, 2013, 07:21:31
Now that the Rugby Championship is fully in the rear-view mirror it’s a good time to sit back and reflect on the things that remain.
Not everything you thought, felt or murmured during the competition will have come true or been your brightest moment, but here are some thoughts that remain a little over a week on.
This All Blacks side could be great
Firstly, they did not lose during the tournament. They outscored Australia 74-45 over two legs, and it wasn’t even that close.
What else? A four-try bonus point in four matches out of five. Won at Springbok fortress Ellis Park.
While the All Blacks were a little rusty against France in the June Tests, they were humming by their conclusion and hitting their stride as the Rugby Championship came along. By the final round they were well and truly playing the best rugby seen in years.
The All Blacks clearly came into this tournament with their sights set on seeing just how much havoc they could cause, playing both a physical and expansive game at a level most sides could only dream of.
The core of this team has been around a long time – Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Andrew Hore et al – but with the pieces added in more recent years there is a feeling this team could be more dominant than any for a generation.
The likes of Julian Savea, Keiran Read (has been good for a long time, but is nearing the pantheon now), Brodie Rettalick, Sam Whitelock, Israel Dagg and Aaron Smith (maybe the best pure halfback in the jersey since Justin Marshall) mean there’s a dynamic in this All Blacks outfit that no other team can match when it’s greased up and going at full pace.
With four Tests left in 2013 there’s a strong chance they’ll be able to remain undefeated.
Don’t sleep on the Springboks
Many Springboks followers will have left the Rugby Championship feeling better than when it began but still a little down in the dumps after they weren’t able to take down the All Blacks in either of their matches. The tournament was definitely the biggest roller coaster for their fans.
They blitzed Australia in Brisbane, a fairly unhappy hunting ground in recent times, and can be proud of that achievement alone. Not many South African teams have visited Australia playing a confrontational game while supplementing it so well with a sense of flair and opportunism.
The Springboks’ forward pack is of the right age that their dominating performances should be repeatable for a number of years, and possibly improve further from here.
The other pleasing aspects of their game relate an attitude change that is still taking root – attacking the fringes, holding the ball for longer and moving the point of attack.
As the combinations gel and the new alignments become second nature there should be further improvements in these areas.
It would be a fool that suggests the South Africans woke up for two matches at the end of this Rugby Championship and that is that. This team will continue its upward trajectory for a while and be back to try to topple the All Blacks again.
Argentina needs to play together more often and in Super Rugby
As it stands the Pumas have had an unsuccessful entry into the Rugby Championship in terms of scoreboard results – zero wins can’t be the return they were hoping for after year two. However they have shown signs of improvement along the way and are starting to adapt their program to the circumstances.
The way this tournament played out showed the other three nations were fitter than the Pumas. There were points scored against them late, they were unable to break down the struggling Wallabies with a lot of possession in Perth and they fell apart a bit by the final round.
While their forward pack was strong, and at times dominant, there was little cohesion in their attack, especially maintaining momentum and transitioning from the forwards to backline play.
The problem is this tournament basically falls in what counts as the offseason for the players who turn out for Northern Hemisphere clubs. It’s very hard for them to be rounding into peak condition for this tournament in the same way the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies are.
To make matters worse many of the players only turn out for their country during this tournament, meaning other Tests throughout the year aren’t building on this period of sustained combination-building and planning.
Argentina needs the next batch of young players, who have done very well at the under-21 World Cup and other levels, to focus on getting into Super Rugby as quickly as possible.
Whether that means joining as a club or two in 2016 or signing overseas player deals for the current clubs, they need to do it quickly.
The game that lived up to the hype
It’s very rare for the rugby world to so collectively target a game, hype it up and have no one flinch in the epic expectations of a universe altering clash. It’s even rarer for the game to live up to that sort of expectation itself.
So it is worth holding onto the Battle of Ellis Park because all of those things happened. Our universe was a nudged couple of degrees off kilter in the hours after that match.
It was the perfect combination of circumstances: a team at its peak and a team with high ambition, two immensely proud rugby nations, a cathedral and pure rugby motives.
Both teams played with the aim of opening up the game, rather than closing it down. The skill and ambition was first class.
At the risk of being glib, what was on display in this match proves why some other teams try to restrict the game of rugby and play a conservative style.
Not many outfits can play for 80 minutes with the kind unrelenting energy, unyielding focus and passion required to pull it off. So the temptation is always there to measure your output; to test one skill at a time.
Neither the All Blacks nor the Springboks would settle for hedging their bets in that way, and we have to applaud that.
Six matches. Eight tries. What a tournament. I sure hope Ben Smith dropped a mic sometime after the full time siren at Ellis Park.
Willie Le Roux
The little spark the Springboks have been searching for has been found in the form of Le Roux. A combination of playmaker, finisher and unpredictable trickery, he had a profound impact on the way the Springboks attacked during the tournament.
He was on the wing, at fullback, taking the ball at first receiver or being a second distributor further across the pitch.
It must be comforting for Springbok fans to know there’s someone out there helping Morne Steyn direct players through holes and bringing a better level of deception to the backline movements.
There might not be a better exponent of the chip kick in world rugby than Le Roux, but his trickery and silky skills are matched with a desire to work and that’s a key.
It’s true that a player in the mould of Le Roux is a high-end luxury item, like buying an Audi Q7 when you already have a perfectly good Land Cruiser, but you won’t find anyone disputing the Springboks were missing the grunt work. Le Roux is part of the adaptability they’ve been missing.