5 things to know from the Rugby Championship
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Here are five things to know from the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship after New Zealand beat South Africa in the final round of games to clinch a second straight title, and Australia romped past Argentina in the battle to avoid last place:
NEW ZEALAND UNDENIABLY NO. 1
New Zealand continues to soar above the rest after winning the World Cup in late 2011. The All Blacks have dominated through two southern hemisphere seasons, winning 12 from 12 in the Rugby Championship over the last two years and sealing a second straight title on Saturday with a pulsating 38-27 win away in South Africa.
There were suggestions a new-look Springboks team might be ready to challenge for the mantle of the world’s best, but they were swept away in a scintillating all-around display from the top-ranked All Blacks to leave no doubt as to who is No. 1. The No. 2-ranked South Africans will have to wait another year to test themselves against the best again.
HANSEN’S HANDSOME RECORD
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen described the roller-coaster of emotions he goes through during a game: “Sometimes you want to kick something and sometimes you want to cuddle something.” Occasionally gruff, often direct, the thick-set former player has emerged from his role as assistant coach under Graham Henry to set a new standard since taking over at the end of 2011.
Under him, the All Blacks have won 21 of 23 tests with a draw and a single loss, sweeping series against Ireland and France and winning every game in his first two seasons in charge in the Rugby Championship. If New Zealanders thought the glorious World Cup victory on home soil two years ago under Henry was their greatest achievement, Hansen’s handsome record so far suggests there are plenty more good things to come.
LIFE AFTER RICHIE & DAN
Inspirational captain Richie McCaw was injured for games at home against South Africa and away against Argentina. Flyhalf Dan Carter’s tournament-ending shoulder problem after a crunching tackle by South Africa hooker Bismarck du Plessis left the All Blacks without their playmaker and the world’s leading points-scorer for the final run-in. For both, New Zealand found able replacements.
The 21-year-old Sam Cane stood in at openside flanker for McCaw and won plenty of praise, while outstanding No. 8 Kieran Read led the All Blacks to wins over the Springboks and Pumas. Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett, whose try at Ellis Park sealed the title, are players with huge promise at No. 10. New Zealand’s depth of talent will soften the blow when the 32-year-old McCaw and 31-year-old Carter eventually hang up their record-breaking boots.
ALL BLACKS CAN’T LOSE, PUMAS CAN’T WIN
At the other end of the spectrum from New Zealand is Argentina, which just can’t get over the line when it comes to winning a game in the Rugby Championship. Tournament newcomers in 2012, Argentina drew 16-16 with South Africa last year when it should have won and twice had Australia on the ropes before allowing the Wallabies to escape with narrow victories. This season was even more of a struggle. The Pumas started with a 73-13 mauling by South Africa and ended with a 54-17 hammering by Australia — both record defeats to those countries — leaving Argentina with a record of one draw and 11 losses in the Rugby Championship.
TEST RUGBY’S TESTING
Perhaps the man to learn the most from the 2013 Rugby Championship was new Australia coach Ewen McKenzie. Expected to turn the Wallabies around after the British and Irish Lions series defeat, the Super Rugby-winning coach underwhelmed in his first competition in international rugby with home and away losses to both the All Blacks and Springboks. A former World Cup-winning player, McKenzie said he now understood how “unforgiving” test rugby was for a coach before his team finally clicked in the last game of the tournament, a seven-try blitz of Argentina.
The tests come thick and fast for McKenzie: Australia plays newly crowned champion New Zealand again in a Bledisloe Cup match in two weeks.
Follow Gerald Imray at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP