WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand took time to put together the complete performance they had been threatening, but their last two matches in the inaugural Rugby Championship firmly showed they had moved the game on from last year’s successful World Cup campaign.
The All Blacks, unlike previous Webb Ellis trophy winners, avoided a World Cup hangover, sweeping through the Rugby Championship’s six matches unbeaten after defeating Ireland 3-0 in their June series.
They have now won 16 successive tests, one short of the record amongst Tier One rugby nations, which is held jointly by the New Zealand side of the late 1960s and South Africa in the late 1990s.
Steve Hansen’s team can match that in Brisbane on October 20 with another test against Australia before both sides embark on season-ending northern hemisphere tours.
If the All Blacks win at Lang Park, the European sides will be hard pressed to prevent them breaking, and extending, the world record of 18 successive wins held by Lithuania.
Under Hansen, the All Blacks have tried to play the game at a much faster pace than they had done in the past, with forwards and backs combining at high intensity to change angles, get wide and stretch defenses across the park.
It took them until their 54-15 victory over Argentina in their penultimate game to achieve that goal, which they were able to repeat in the second half of their 32-16 win over South Africa in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Despite their attack finally clicking in their last two matches, it was, ironically, Israel Dagg’s yellow card late in the match against the Springboks that demonstrated the All Blacks’ resolve in their run to the title.
Composure under pressure, allied with an aggressive defensive line stopped the Springboks’ attack and the forwards forced a turnover that allowed Dan Carter and his tactical nous to move them down field, where they spent the majority of the undermanned 10 minutes in attack and were rewarded with a penalty goal to extend their lead.
Such was the effectiveness of the All Blacks’ defense, they conceded six tries across the entire Championship and scored 18, 17 of which were by the backs.
Of those 18 tries, 13 were scored in their three away games in Sydney, La Plata and Johannesburg, emphasizing the team’s ability to win anywhere and in style.
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer will not be as satisfied as his All Blacks counterpart, with just two victories and a lucky away draw against the Pumas, to finish third in the tournament.
South Africa squandered a big lead against the runner-up Wallabies to lose in Perth and left several points on the field against the All Blacks in Dunedin with poor goal kicking.
Meyer, however, introduced several younger players including lock Eben Etzebeth, flanker Marcell Coetzee and flyhalf Johan Goosen to test rugby this season as they look to build for the 2015 World Cup in England.
While Meyer initially stuck with misfiring flyhalf Morne Steyn, whose kick-oriented game had pressured the All Blacks in Dunedin, the spark provided by Goosen in their penultimate game against the Wallabies showed their attacking potential.
Despite not winning a game in the competition, the Pumas might be satisfied with their performances, where they pushed the All Blacks for 60 minutes in Wellington and should have beaten the Wallabies on the Gold Coast a week later.
Led superbly by number eight Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and veteran lock Patricio Albacete, the Pumas provided an immense challenge in the forwards while their defensive pattern was superb for much of the competition, only cracking when the All Blacks ran riot in La Plata.
Such was their impact on the competition, proving more competitive than Italy have been in 12 years of the Six Nations, pundits expect them to challenge for the title sooner rather than later and transfer that experience into greater consistency at World Cups.
Australia’s gallant, if error-strewn, win over Argentina in the closing match in Rosario on Saturday was enough to snatch second place in the championship and the world number two ranking back from the Springboks.
But the Wallabies endured a largely miserable campaign, blighted by injuries and lashed by media criticism at home.
Already robbed of skipper James Horwill, the team lost flanker David Pocock for the tournament due to a serious knee injury in the opener against New Zealand and lost scrumhalf Will Genia two matches later in a horror run dubbed the ‘captain’s curse’.
Further injuries exposed a worrying lack of depth in the Wallabies’ lineup, and forced embattled coach Robbie Deans to introduce 11 new caps to international rugby.
Deans, already under intense media pressure, was further undermined by one of his own players, with injured flyhalf Quade Cooper publicly criticizing his coaching from the sidelines.
In an extraordinary attack, Cooper ruled himself out of playing another game for the Wallabies under Deans’s charge and labeled the team as a “toxic environment”.
Deans’s biggest problem, however, remains one that has hampered the Wallabies for the best part of a decade and one he must fix quickly, if he still has the job next year, of establishing a consistently competitive scrum.
Several of his props appeared overweight and unfit for international rugby, while Deans was forced to ask Nathan Sharpe to postpone his retirement in the absence of a settled locking combination.
Deans has two weeks to try to lift his side to face New Zealand in Brisbane, and take a step to catching up to the world champions in the final dead rubber match of the Bledisloe Cup, which the All Blacks wrapped up in August to retain the trans-Tasman trophy for a 10th successive season.
Editing by Ian Ransom