New Zealand are ruining everyone else’s fun. If the All Blacks showed the same frailty under pressure as the Black Caps, we might be celebrating a new golden age in rugby union.
For, in a 12-month period during which the Springboks have lost for the first time to Japan, Argentina and, on these shores, Ireland, the moral of the story ought to be that everyone else is getting better. Instead, everyone regrets the fact that the New Zealand template is too good.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding period for the All Blacks, thanks to the international retirement of the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Instead, they have moved seamlessly into a new era, playing rugby that the rest of the world can only dream about.
It wasn’t hard to predict. During Super Rugby this year, the Hurricanes, Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs all reached the quarterfinals. The production line of talent was so prolific that a player as good as Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie couldn’t crack a starting berth for the national side in the Rugby Championship.
And the extraordinary Nehe Milner-Skudder hasn’t played since shoulder surgery in March, but no one in New Zealand is wringing their hands, wondering how soon they might be able to hurry him back.
How do they do it? That’s the question rugby people all over the world have been asking for a century. And it really is that long that they have been at the top of the tree.
Firstly, New Zealand is the only country (with the possible exception of Fiji) where rugby union is the national sport. Even so, because of their small population, their player base is tiny in comparison to England and South Africa.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, club and provincial rivalry is encouraged, but nothing is allowed to get in the way of the national side. To that end, the Super Rugby coaches meet regularly to plot the way forward for the All Blacks, a process that has a profound byproduct — playing style among the provinces is homogenised.
And if the Super Rugby coaches argue among themselves, they have a higher body that can step in — not the New Zealand Rugby Union but the former coaches of the All Blacks.
These men all meet for lunch on a regular basis, meaning that the vast knowledge built up at the helm of the national side is a living, breathing thing, not something to be pored over in museums.
The relevance for South African rugby is clear. For 75 years, the Springboks were a match for the All Blacks but, in the 21 years since the game went professional, the great rivalry has come to an end.
We still produce vast numbers of talented players, increasingly of colour, but progression through the ranks is fractured and difficult to predict.
The current national coach, Allister Coetzee, spent much of the Super Rugby season travelling to the franchises and getting the opinions of the various coaches. He also put together a coaching structure for the Springboks that seemed to tick all the boxes.
But when the international season began in June and players assumed to be imperious proved merely mortal, the gnashing of teeth could be heard in the land.
On Thursday, the Springboks flew off to Australia to prepare for next week’s Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane. It will be a fraught week for Coetzee because he hasn’t got the depth in his squad he would like. Nevertheless, because the Wallabies haven’t won a Test since the World Cup semifinal, the Springboks will be expected to win.
The fact of the matter, though, is that the 2016 Rugby Championship might be a contest to savour were it not for the All Blacks. It would be a brave punter who expected Argentina, Australia and South Africa to surrender their home games.
The Pumas have put a disappointing Super Rugby season behind them to find their game at international level. They will go from strength to strength after last week’s win in Salta.
The Springboks were good enough to overcome a 10-point deficit in the last 10 minutes against the same side in Nelspruit. That they could not do the same away from home should surprise no one.
The Wallabies are in crisis. They can’t buy a win and are weaker than at any time in the past 40 years. Again, the performance of their sides in the Super Rugby season should have been a warning.
The Brumbies made it through to the playoffs purely because of the skewed logic of the tournament, not because they were among the eight best sides. The other four franchises were an embarrassment.
Australia, being the sporting nation that it is, will find a way to rise again. The rule across all the sporting codes is that when an Aussie side is down, kick them, because they won’t be down long.
So, between now and next weekend, the Springboks need to find a ruthless streak so far missing from their game this season. They need to beat the Wallabies convincingly in Brisbane, because the All Blacks in Christchurch a fortnight hence will be a bridge too far.