New Zealand beat Australia in Dunedin, finishing the southern season as the undefeated champions of world rugby—but all four sides in the Rugby Championship improved through the season.
That improvement is about to be given an independent test, as all four sides—including South Africa and Argentina—are about to tour the northern hemisphere.
The All Blacks dominated the southern Test season. Their 2013 record is:
Three wins over France.
Three wins over Australia.
Two wins over South Africa.
Two wins over Argentina.
The All Blacks beat the Wallabies 41-33 in Dunedin, in one of the most exciting games of the season. Despite losing, the Wallabies have taken heart from their performance.
Mercurial flyhalf Quade Cooper was largely responsible. He was brought back into the Wallabies when Ewen McKenzie was named coach at the beginning of the RC.
McKenzie used both Cooper and rookie Mat Toomua through the championship. Many critics said the Dunedin Test would be the final chance for Cooper, who was dropped from the Wallabies by former coach Robbie Deans.
Factored into that thinking was Cooper’s poor record against the All Blacks—and the animosity NZ fans show him, which had fazed him.
But the flighty Cooper was discipline personified. He defended in the front line, and defended well against rampaging All Black forwards, who perceived him as a weakness.
His brilliant, pre-injury stepping and running skills have not returned. But he has gained composure and his game-management ability remains, as does his ability to target unmarked runners with lengthy, precision passes.
His flyhalf competitor, Toomua, played at inside centre, following injury to Christian Leali’ifano. Cooper and Toomua brought noticeable authority to the Wallaby back-line.
Tavita Kuridrani added both size and skill at outside centre, and Israel Folau continued his improvement at fullback.
When he took the Wallabies post, McKenzie stated he would re-introduce the running game, and he did – without success. This brought criticism, which McKenzie ignored.
Despite McKenzie’s consistent message, the back-line muddled along, with only half-back Will Genia secure in his position.
Now the core of the back-line looks composed, with considerable talent to return, including stars James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, who were dropped for disciplinary reasons.
McKenzie’s running-rugby stance is not based solely on emotion. The All Blacks score about four tries each Test, so the Wallabies have to be able to match that.
Despite the credible score, and the marked improvement in the backs, the Wallabies were playing a team that had already won the Rugby Championship and had already won the Bledisloe Cup.
The All Blacks had just arrived back from the South African rugby heartland, where they beat the Springboks at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, in a game that decided the RC.
It was the match of the season. The vastly improved Springboks needed a bonus-point victory to snatch the RC and played open rugby throughout.
Despite losing, coach Heyneke Meyer showed that his approach was proving effective.
The Springboks and the Wallabies results were similar. But the two games were different. The Boks encounter was the final of the RC; the Wallabies encounter had no implications outside the game itself.
The Springboks forwards matched the All Blacks. On Saturday, the Wallabies forwards were poor, as they often are.
Australia’s Captain James Horwill is slow and ineffectual, as is Ben Mowen, the captain of the Brumbies Super 15 side, so no-one leads by example. There are injured players to come back—including the great flanker David Pocock—but improvement may come slowly.
While Australians are hopeful of a clean sweep on their tour of the northern hemisphere in November, they are beatable, in part because the brilliant rookie Folau doesn’t fully understand positional play in defence.
South Africa, who also tour, will be hard to beat.
The All Blacks will be unbeatable.
On paper, that is. Standing between that prediction and reality are the great international sides England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France, and the improving Italy and Japan.
Choosing three games only, reveals long rivalries, and historic encounters. The games are: South Africa versus England; Australia versus Ireland; New Zealand versus France. That’s without mentioning Wales, who play both South Africa and Australia.
Peter Lalanabaravi is a rugby writer with over 30 years experience.