‘Just give us the World Cup now,’ the New Zealand Herald declared after the All Blacks smashed the Wallabies 40-12 at Eden Park in late August. The men in black delivered an otherworldly performance and star flyhalf Beauden Barrett scored four of the side’s six tries. The display was widely praised around the rugby world.
In New Zealand, one of the country’s biggest newspapers predicted that no team would beat the All Blacks – or prevent them from claiming a third successive title – at the 2019 World Cup in Japan. That statement was not well received by fans in the northern hemisphere, who took to social media to remind all and sundry about the series draw between the British & Irish Lions and New Zealand in 2017.
Three weeks later, the Springboks beat their arch-rivals in Wellington to put another dent in the argument that the All Blacks are invincible and that they will not be troubled at the next global tournament.
The stats show why the Kiwis have every right to feel confident. The All Blacks have won 90% of their Tests since the start of the 2010 Test season. They’ve been the No 1-ranked side in the world for the better part of a decade, and have shown an ability to peak at big tournaments, as we saw at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.
That said, the past three years have witnessed a significant change as far as the other contenders are concerned. In 2015, all four sides from the Rugby Championship progressed to the World Cup semi-finals. Since then, however, the home nations have scored a series of important results over Argentina, Australia and South Africa.
The All Blacks haven’t had everything their own way against Ireland and – as any fan from the north will remind you – they were held to a 1-1 series draw when the Lions toured New Zealand last season. Indeed, every rugby lover will be watching with interest when the southern teams tour the north this November.
The results of those matches will echo through to the 2019 World Cup. The All Blacks should be looking to assert their dominance in the big clashes against Ireland in Dublin and England in London, and perhaps carry the torch for a southern-hemisphere contingent that is not as strong as it once was. While the All Blacks have won 13 of their 16 Tests against the northern nations since the start of the 2016 season – losing only to Ireland in 2016 and the Lions last year – the records of the other three teams tell a story.
Argentina have never been dominant as far as results against the northern hemisphere are concerned. The decline of Australia and South Africa in this respect, however, has been sharp. The Wallabies have scored six wins in 16 matches against northern opposition over the past three years, while the Boks have managed nine wins out of 17 games during this period.
Ireland have never been stronger in the professional era. They beat the Boks by a record score in Dublin last November (38-3), and went on to claim a Grand Slam of victories in their successful 2018 Six Nations campaign.
On the back of that effort, they went to Australia and scored a 2-1 series win over the Wallabies. A victory against the All Blacks in Dublin this November would cap a great calendar year and serve as an additional boost ahead of the World Cup. Ireland will head into that tournament as favourites to win Pool A and face the runners-up of Pool B in the quarter-finals – which is likely to be the All Blacks or the Boks, depending on the result of their clash.
England failed to progress past the pool stage of the last global tournament – a shock outcome given the competition was staged in their own backyard. Since Eddie Jones took the reins, they have claimed two Six Nations titles, a 3-0 series win in Australia and a drought-ending victory against the Boks – the 2016 win was England’s first against South Africa since 2006.
In 2017, they equalled the tier-one record of 18 consecutive Test wins, although it must be noted that they didn’t play the All Blacks once during this period.
England will face the Boks, All Blacks and Wallabies in the space of four weeks this November. They will have a point to prove against the Boks after losing the series 2-1 in South Africa earlier this year.
The subsequent clash against the All Blacks – the team’s first under Jones – will reveal where they stand in relation to the No 1 side a year out from the World Cup. If they lose those two matches, they may go into the final clash against the Wallabies in desperate need of a victory. Indeed, if they lose all three of these games, commentators in the south may have cause to argue that no northern team bar Ireland will seriously contend for the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019.
The other Celtic nations should not be taken lightly, though. The Boks have lost their last three fixtures against Wales, and may struggle again when they travel to Cardiff this November for the final clash of a very long season. A win against Scotland will be hard to come by, especially when one considers their performances over the past year or so.
In 2017, Scotland beat the Wallabies home and away, and came within six points of a famous victory over the All Blacks. Since then, they’ve beaten France and England in the Six Nations and the Pumas in Argentina. The Boks would do well to head into the clash at Murrayfield with the right mindset.
South Africa have won four of their last 18 away Tests. They will need to fight tooth and nail for away wins against England, France, Scotland and Wales this November.
There may be a temptation to rest key players for that visit to Edinburgh, but then coach Rassie Erasmus would do well to remember that the Boks could face Scotland in the 2019 World Cup playoffs. They can’t allow the Scots to score any psychological points ahead of a possible meeting in next year’s quarter-finals.
The north has been rising steadily since the end of the previous World Cup. The coming internationals will give the bigger nations an opportunity to make another statement with a view to the 2019 showpiece.
That said, the Boks and Wallabies, who haven’t been as consistent as the All Blacks in these north-south fixtures since the start of the 2016 season, will have the chance to redeem themselves.
The Boks scored a victory that shook the rugby world when they beat the All Blacks in New Zealand. A return of three or four wins in Europe this November will fuel the belief that they can challenge for the world title in Japan next year.
This article first appeared in SportsClub magazine
Photo: Marco Longari/Getty Images