Ellis Park epic highlights gulf between the best and the rest

The build-up to Saturday’s test at Ellis Park between South Africa and New Zealand was so intense, and there was so much hype surrounding the fixture, that it seemed unfeasible the game could live up to expectations. The two best teams in the world, a repeat of the legendary 1995 World Cup final being played on the same ground (complete with low-flying plane, as happened that day), sublime match-ups across the park and a raucous home crowd baying for Kiwi blood – how could the end product possibly meet the hype?

Well, it did – and then some (to borrow an Americanism I don’t particularly like, but fits perfectly here). With the haka over and the crowd’s chants of ‘olĂ©’ still ringing in the air, one of the best games ever was played out in one of world rugby’s great settings. That might sound like hyperbole, but anyone who has seen the game will tell you it is merely fact. Both teams produced performances worthy of the mantle of best team in the world – which is what they are now, undoubtedly, locked in a duel for.

The Springboks have become renowned for their power game, bullying teams into submission with not only the biggest, but also the most technically proficient, pack in the world. However, under Heyneke Meyer’s reign they have begun to add further strings to their bow. Willie le Roux is a player that, under previous regimes, would not have got a look in due to his size, but this Championship he has emerged as one of the most dangerous wingers in the world with his gliding running and quick feet.

Nothing more needs be said about his wing partner Habana (other than how unlucky it was he had to leave the field on Saturday with an injury), and in JJ Engelbrecht and Jan Serfontein, the Boks have two prodigiously talented, ball-playing young centres to take them forwards. In the meantime, Jean de Villiers is one of the great rugby captains – a totemic presence in the midfield, and if Saturday’s performance is anything to go by there is plenty of life left in him yet.

Expected to revert to type and play the power-territory game for which they are famous, they caught everyone – not least the All Blacks – by surprise by playing a quick, wide game that mirrored that of their illustrious visitors. They made more passes, metres with ball in hand, clean breaks and offloads than New Zealand.

There were even forwards playing comfortably in the backs – Habana’s two tries were set up by Duane Vermuelen and Francois Louw, two hulking giants that showed gorgeous sleight of hand to set the speedster away – just as Kieran Read had done earlier for Ben Smith. And Eben Etzebeth’s charge down the left-hand touchline was gloriously reminiscent of several such breaks Sam Whitelock has made in his time. It was vintage All Black play, only from men wearing green.

And what of the All Blacks? They were unbeaten coming into this game, had spent an unprecedented 46 weeks at the top of the IRB rankings and yet still some questioned their form, saying they were not as good as results suggest. Nonsense. They are as complete a team as has ever existed, certainly in the professional era.

One player stands above the rest. If Richie McCaw has been the pre-eminent forward in world rugby for a decade, that mantle has now shifted the smallest distance, to the man that packs down right next to him and wears one number higher. Kieran Read is, quite simply, the best player in the world right now. On Saturday he again showed how rounded his game in, combining a beautiful faded break and one-handed offload for the first try with some stirling turnover work at the breakdown, as well as an insatiable engine to tear about every inch of the park.

If Read does indeed stand above the rest, then there is little in it. Whitelock and Retallick (who only got a game because of Romano’s injury) have matured in an insanely short time into a world class partnership, Aaron Smith no longer looks like the weak link in the backline, and in Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett they have proved there is life after Dan Carter. Not enough can be said about Conrad Smith’s importance and continued excellence, and Nonu’s growth into an all-round player is astonishing. The back three of Smith, Savea and Dagg possesses as much intelligence as it does pace and power.

So where does this leave the chasing pack? Sadly, for the first time in a while there looks to be a clear divide between the top two and the rest. If the World Cup started tomorrow, you would bet that (draw allowing) it would be New Zealand and South Africa contesting the final. This Rugby Championship has confirmed that there are now two tiers of Southern Hemisphere teams – Australia have fallen away to join Argentina and the Northern Hemisphere nations in pursuit of the big two.

England’s win over New Zealand last autumn looks nothing more than a blip on the radar – as good as they looked that day, they regressed during the Six Nations and have not backed it up. France have the players capable of challenging the top two, but for whatever reason (possibly their outrageously packed season and subsequent player burnout) cannot make it click at international level. Wales look majestic at times (mostly against England) but have not yet proved themselves consistently good enough to beat the Southern Hemisphere giants on a regular basis. Ireland look good in patches but are far too inconsistent.

The sad truth is, last year’s Six Nations did not produce a game fit to lace the boots of the weekend’s Ellis Park epic. Of course, the All Blacks and Springboks do not play to that level every week, as the context of the game brought the best out of them, but when was the last time you saw anything like that between two Northern Hemisphere nations?

The upcoming Autumn Internationals might give us some idea of how close they are, but in reality, with not long to go until 2015, it is very difficult to see any team catching South Africa or New Zealand.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

20 thoughts on “Ellis Park epic highlights gulf between the best and the rest

  1. Setting myself up for some vitriol I suspect but dare I comment that as much as I loved the all-action pace of the game and a level of commitment that was astonishing I was surprised at the number of missed tackles and bad positioning in defence that made the attacking play look even better than it was. No question that on the day either team would have easily beaten any of the chasing pack but in my humble opinion this was by no means the perfect game of rugby that has been suggested by some. Just putting my tin helmet on as I await replies!

    1. I think that’s a very fair comment Roy, but my argument would be that it wasn’t the defence that made the attack look good, but rather the inverse (apart from Barrett’s shocker on de Villiers).

      Both teams played with such verve, intensity, and pace that it made defending very, very difficult. I don’t think there was a team on the planet that could have done a better job of defending against these two teams playing as they did on Saturday.

  2. The high missed tackle and turnover count is surely evidence of the wonderful, high risk rugby we were treated to on Saturday. A game filled with bags of pace and intensity, there was barely a dull moment to catch a breath. That game embodied the phrase, “hell for leather” for me.

  3. Tin hat off temporarily but I might need it again for another suggestion. Could it be that the need for SA to not only win but score four tries set the platform for this exciting contest? The ABs didn’t really seem to mind leaking points they appeared totally convinced of their own ability to score more. Could you see a similar type of match happen in a World Cup final? I doubt it personally, mores the pity.

    1. I totally agree- if this had been a World Cup final, both teams would have retreated into their shell a little and just played the percentages. The bonus point system certainly helped make this the awesome game it was! Time for the Six Nations to follow? If we want northern hemisphere teams to start playing southern style attacking rugby, maybe rewarding them for scoring tries would help…

  4. This article raises a good point though- New Zealand are miles ahead of the pack and EVERYBODY knows it.

    With 2015 just around the corner, all y’all better be hoping Stu Lancs can work a miracle on the current England side. Don’t get me wrong the current England squad are good (may even beat the Aussys and Safas on a good day at Twickers), but how many of them are All Blacks?

    And before you start, I’m English through and through!

  5. Well it certainly looks as if the All Blacks and the Springboks are in the driving seat at the moment however, I would also agree that the Northern Hemisphere teams are not capable of beating the AB or the Boks consistently , however in the RWC they only have to beat them once! Remember France v All Blacks a few years ago! Even in the final in 2011 it was touch and go for while. I would not be writing off England or the Welsh, despite what results they have between now and RWC!

  6. Well only two teams are coming out of the England, Wales, Australia pool, so you’ll have to write one of em off!

  7. Yes Liam you are correct however i think Australia will miss out . Cant see them improving enough over next year or so to make any impact. Lets see how they perform on their “Grand Slam” tour starting in November!

    1. I think you could be right there! Probably Aus vs Wales will decide who comes out alive from the pool of death. And on current form you have to give it to Wales.

  8. Good article Mr Hosie! Very kind of you!
    Mmm, Liam! Not fully in agreement with your first comment, but with the second you are on the numbers!
    Bill, I will not bet on the Aussies not finding some solutions! Their biggest problem is the front row, and they might find one or maybe two props out there! However, for a prop to become a Castro, Jones or Carl takes time and a lot of beef and eggs for breakfast! That’s not even mentioning all the training, mastering of the dark arts, etc. The next super season and end of the year tours will really be indicative of their state of affairs.
    On the other hand, England have quite some talent coming through as was displayed in France with the Juniors and that could play a decisive role as far as depth is concerned.
    Wales, at the moment is in the driving seat, but is the depth sufficient for the tournament? We saw the tremendous effect the unfortunate loss of Warburton had on them. If they remain intact as a team, surely they cannot be ignored.
    But you may be correct.

    1. England have a really poor record of bringing young players through to the international side. I’m less than convinced that the good England U20 sides recently will follow through to the senior side. Ben Ford in Oz/ SA or NZ would already be in the national squad. In England he may never get there. Just how many of the England U20 squad of the last 3 years can you see in the current England training squad?

      I’ll be contentious here and say that the main reason UK youngsters don’t get the quick leg up that their SH counterparts do is that the premiership teams have far too many foreign players taking their places. In the SH when a name player departs for foreign shores a promising youngster has a spot almost immediately.

      1. Historically I think it’s a fair criticism, but I think this is one area Lancaster has done well.

        Here are a few recent graduates from age group rugby:
        – Owen Farrell
        – Billy & Mako Vunipola
        – Christian Wade
        – Freddie Burns
        – Joe Launchbury
        – Joe Marler
        – Marland Yarde
        – Matt Kvesic

        That’s before you look at the Saxons.

        Clubs have to maintain an average of 14 EQP (English Qualified Players) in their match day squads to get an incentive payment. Here’s some data I could find on a quick search.


        Of course we would all like more, but I don’t think it’s a major issue (as it is in France).

        One of the reasons I think we’ve not historically translated U20 success into senior success is we have produced too many U20 gym bunnies who have overpowered less physically developed age group opposition, but haven’t developed skills to match their guns. Watching the U20 cup this year we played some great stuff, so hopefully that trait can now be consigned to the history books. As a complete digression I do worry about how many more of the Chalmers type cases are out there, “get big before you get tested”, gym and protein only gets you so far!

  9. Well Jan,they may well find a couple of Castros, Jannies, Beasts however , as you say, plenty of eggs/steak! England did do well on recent IRB Junior world championships however how many Estzabeths, Pat Lambies, Surfentains amongst these youngsters who can step up so quickly to full international level? Once again i would agree that AB/Boks would be favourites with the Boks continuing to improve, however, knockout rugby can produces huge suprises ala Francev All Blacks, and in most recent RWC Ire v Australia(who at that time were hot favourites). For me Eng and Wales will still go thro!

    1. Australia should send their props to play in France for a year. With nothing below Super Rugby I just don’t think they get enough of a challenge, they aren’t up against top class operators week in week out.

      I hope they don’t, I’m enjoying the spectacle of them being shamed in the scrum after becoming masters of the non-scrum in under the old rules.

  10. While I’m not disputing that NZ and SA are the top two rugby nations in the world right now, I do think this article rests on a fairly massive and invalid assumption: that you can judge a team based on single performances. This is a strong tendency in rugby and it’s ridiculous. Wales did not become the best team in the Northern Hemisphere because they thrashed England in Cardiff, and England did not become the best team in the world because they trashed the Blackness in November. The Ellis Park game was phenomenal, but if it were a one-off then it would mean very little in the grand scheme of things (as England’s defeat of the NZs proved, and Wales’ defeat of England may well prove in the future). It’s the consistency that determines how good a team is, and the reason NZ and SA are the two best teams in international rugby is that they are capable of producing performances approaching the calibre of the Ellis Park match on a regular basis.

  11. ABs recorded a white wash in last year’s comp as well, and were looking well on course to a grand slam tour, before their ‘blip’ against England. So whilst I would make them 20 point favourites against any NH side they aren’t invincible.

    Wales Vs Boks looks a great match up, Wales are the only NH side that can match their physicality in my opinion. Though my gut feel is Wales will be undercooked i
    as there isn’t much prep time before the first fixture, so no cryotherapy training camps to get them ready and limited time to integrate the expats.

  12. I hate to burst the Welsh bubble but having contributed the bulk of the team for the Lions matches, I’m almost sure the Welsh team will not be the force this NH season they would ordinarily be.

    Time will tell if that is a fair assumption with the only leveller for the eoy matches being that the SH teams will be a little tender as well. Who knows how much that Ellis Park game has taken out of the SA and NZ teams?

    In any case these eoy games will answer a number of questions about the gap between SH and NH, the durability and maturity of the Welsh team, if there is any ongoing improvement in the England team and whether the French have the mindset to play decent consistent rugby.

    If we have one or two games even remotely approaching the Ellis Park game November will be a great rugby month. Hopefully the refs are up to it though!

    1. I think a lot will also depend who SA and the All Blacks send for these internationals. The Boks players are straight into Currie Cup so maybe the selectors will give some of them a rest. The All Blacks and Wallabies still have the last Bladisloe test match and there is some talk of the AB resting some key players for tour..It is ironic that the Wallabies have the “Grand Slam ” tour and I think they will have their strongest squad although they may use the the tour to try and “find ” new talent! Whether the AB or the Boks send their strongest squads or not they will still be a handful for the home unions and France. The tour however is not all about the “big three”. There are many other international matches involving the likes of Argentina and Tonga so much to look forward to. Yes we do hope that the referees are consistant and hopefull Nigel Owens recent performance will inspire his counterparts!

      1. I suspect the Australians may just surprise everyone. Can they be much worse than the last 4 months. The Argentinians I suspect will have the usual mix of really dangerous and completely dysfunctional. SA are likely to give youngsters Goosen, Steph-Du Toit and Serfontein more game time. NZ can pick just about anyone at the moment and still be favourites. Personally I would like to see much more of Beauden Barrett. Tonga and Samoa will most likely as usual give someone a huge fright.

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