A lack of competition in the Rugby Championship, and the demise of Australian rugby in particular, is hurting the All Blacks in the buildup to next year’s World Cup, writes JUANDRE JOUBERT.
There are a host of issues threatening the global dominance of the All Blacks, including the rise of Ireland, the Bok revival under Rassie Erasmus, the purchasing power of French clubs and the increasing temptation to play in Japan.
But there is one less obvious issue that is hurting the men from New Zealand – the lack of competition they’ve had during the past seven Rugby Championships. They have failed to win on only four occasions in 39 games (three losses and one draw) and won the title every year apart from the 2015 season when Australia were crowned champions and the upcoming World Cup was the main focus.
Australia have been on a steady decline since the 2015 World Cup, the Springboks were woeful under Allister Coetzee, while Argentina have never been world beaters.
In 2016, the All Blacks were ruthless in securing six bonus-point victories from six matches to cruise to yet another Rugby Championship title.
In 2017, they once again won six from six, with four of the victories relatively comfortable. They needed a 78th-minute try by Beauden Barrett to secure victory over Australia in Dunedin, while scraping home against the Springboks at Newlands.
The 2017 season was the first since 2011 when the All Blacks lost multiple Tests.
The Springboks are only this year getting back on track under the guidance of Erasmus, but Australian rugby has become the worst we have seen in years.
The All Blacks comfortably beat Australia three times this year, while the gap between the two sides keeps on widening. Under Erasmus, the Springboks did the unthinkable by defeating the All Blacks in Wellington. They were on their way to beating them twice in a single year for the first time since 2009, but let a 17-point lead slip to lose by two at Loftus.
But even after a loss and a close call against the Springboks, New Zealand still clinched their sixth Rugby Championship title in seven years with a game to spare.
Mistakes haven’t been punished in the south as fiercely as they are in the north, and the fact the All Blacks have lost one Rugby Championship game in their last 18 is more a sign of the weakness of their opponents than it is of their quality.
They have not been playing in ‘winner take all’ matches and not playing under that kind of pressure might be their downfall come the World Cup in Japan.
The past two weeks have shown that a relatively experienced All Blacks side can be rattled and pressured into making mistakes. The Springboks, England and Ireland have been giving the All Blacks the same treatment that they have been dishing out in recent years – pressuring them into making mistakes and pouncing on those mistakes to turn them into points.
The All Blacks are still hot favourites to win next year’s World Cup, but another comfortable win in a shortened Rugby Championship campaign in 2019 might not aid them much.
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