IT’S only the midway stage but it looks most likely that the title will again go the way of the All Blacks for the third time in a row, even as they prepare for a physical ambush from the Springboks in Wellington Saturday (kickoff 3.35pm Malaysian time).
While the defending champions have won all three matches thus far with a bonus point in every game, the other three have each won only one.
The point differential is yet another indicator of how the championship lacks a competitive edge, with the All Blacks the only team with a positive differential of 75, the Springboks next on minus 5, Pumas with minus 22 and the Australians at the bottom of the heap with minus 48.
If the All Blacks beat the Pumas with a bonus point, they will again be competition winners with two games to spare and this is the kind of situation we have not seen in the Six Nations.
The Springboks have had a mixed time since Rassie Erasmus became, first the national union’s director of rugby and then head coach of the Springboks ahead of the June Tests.
After fielding a second-string side with 13 new caps to play Wales in Washington D.C., a match Wales won 22-20, Erasmus brought the country to its feet by beating England 2-1 in the June series and another win in the first round of the Rugby Championship last month against the Pumas in Durban gave hope that South African rugby was finally on an upward trend after a disastrous two years post the 2015 World Cup.
But the Pumas had other ideas and brought the Springboks back to earth with a win in Mendoza in the second round. This was followed by last week’s 23-18 loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane in which both sides played so poorly that those who didn’t watch the game hardly missed anything.
In the five matches up to last weekend, Erasmus did quite a fair bit of tinkering with next year’s World Cup in mind but there are many who would like to see him limit this to the truly necessary and concentrate on a set of core players. While it is every coach’s right to plan to fit in the World Cup, too many poor performances around this time may mean the coach losing his job and thus not being able to take the team to Japan. Ironic.
Erasmus has at least decided just on a few changes for Saturday but it is clear that the Springboks have a problem at flyhalf and that’s a pivotal position. Thus it’s back to Handre Pollard starting ahead of Elton Jantjies.
The last time the Springboks beat the All Blacks in New Zealand was on September 12, 2009, in Hamilton with a score of 32-29, the year they won all three Tri-Nations matches against the All Blacks and eventually took the title. But the last six games have all gone to the All Blacks.
With their opponents bringing back their big names who have recovered from injuries or have had their break by not being considered for the Pumas game, the Springboks are in for a tough evening. Returning for the All Blacks are Beauden Barrett and younger brother Jordie at fullback, wing Rieko Ioane, centre Ryan Crotty, and Same Cane and Liam Squire in the forwards.
Another team that has not been firing on all cylinders are the Wallabies, although they stopped a run of four losses through that win over the Springboks last Saturday.
Just like Erasmus, Michael Cheika seems to still be looking for the best combinations and have made changes from match to match.
For this one to be played at the Robina Stadium at the Gold Coast (kickoff 6pm), Cheika has decided to retain the Kurtley Beale-Matt Toomua inside back combo, which means another Saturday on the bench for regular flyhalf Bernard Foley.
The biggest surprise from Cheika is to start Israel Folau on the wing, after the star player has been playing mainly at fullback and occasionally at centre. Folau though shouldn’t feel out of place out wide, for he played there five times in 2013.
What is crucial though is that someone like Folau or any flyer out wide needs the ball to play with. The Springboks had two outstanding wings in Aphiwe Dyantyi and Makazole Mapimpi in Brisbane but both could not do much playing in a team that made so many basic handling and passing errors which at times turned comical.
If the Springboks had a spring in their steps after their successes in June and in the first round in August, this is the turn of the Pumas to similarly feel upbeat, despite their 46-24 loss to the Blacks in Nelson last weekend.
It was a match in which the visitors remained very much in it, trailing by only eight points going into the last 10 minutes, before the All Blacks ran away with it with two converted tries in the last six minutes.
Although they have not been extremely successful against the Wallabies since their first Test on October 27, 1979, in Buenos Aires, the Pumas did beat the Aussies 21-17 in a Rugby Championship match on October 4, 2014, in Mendoza.
If their forwards can provide decent front-foot ball, out wide the Pumas have in Ramiro Moyano, Emiliano Boffelli, Bautista Delguy and Matias Moroni playesr with a lot of gas to burn, elusive runners who are difficult to bring down once in full flight.