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 ‘olé’ 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