In the aftermath of yet another Rugby Championship win for New Zealand, the question has to be asked if there is any chance of their dominance of international rugby coming to an end at the World Cup next year. On the basis of their performance against Argentina, I think there are few who would bet against them retaining the Ellis Webb Cup in 2015.
Argentina played a full part in one of the most fast-paced and free flowing games of international rugby I have seen in some time in La Plata on Saturday night. However, even with a late converted try, they were still beaten by over 20 points by a hugely impressive and clinical All Blacks side. Indiscipline from the Pumas gave New Zealand an early advantage at 6-0, but from then on it was a largely open game with no shortage of flair from both sides. The main difference was that New Zealand made their line-breaks and other opportunities count, while Argentina were all too profligate in the opposition 22.
The All Blacks camp have recently admitted that they are prioritising first phase attacks as an area where they can improve. With this in mind, Steve Hansen will be particularly pleased that one slick backs move and a well-timed switch on the wing between Dagg and Smith was enough to bring them their first try against an Argentinian side, backed by a capacity home crowd. The real stand out moment of the game, however, was a sustained period of Argentine pressure with the score at 13-3. Momentum seemed to have shifted to the home side, who looked very comfortable with the ball in hand and were probing the New Zealand defence across the whole width of the pitch. However, a typically aggressive All Black counter-ruck resulted in a turn over, the ball was shifted wide and their world class outside backs did the rest, with Smith and Dagg again combining to send the latter in for the score. After solid and aggressive defence, one chance, one try and the game was effectively put to bed. This killer edge is something that they always seem to have and is something that every other international rugby coach must be striving to install into their team.
The second half, although slightly less open than the first, was still an impressive performance. The prolific Julian Savea crossed for his 27th try in 27 test matches and replacement scrum-half TJ Perenara also dived over. The only blemish on the evening was the late Argentine consolation try from Horatio Agulla, but it was no less than the home team deserved. As a result, New Zealand have secured their third successive Rugby Championship victory a game early, and can go to Ellis Park in Johannesburg next week free from pressure.
Winning this fiercely competitive championship-which involves several of their main rivals for World Cup glory next year-is a major confidence booster for the New Zealand camp, but for me, what is even more impressive is the way they have won it. Winning with a week to spare against such strong sides is a real bonus, and the young talent that has stepped up throughout the championship is an ominous sign that the All Black dominance shows no signs of stopping with this generation. In the back division alone during the tournament, they have lost undoubtedly one of the best 10 + 12 combinations of all time in Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu, while the options in the fly-half jersey were further diminished for the latter stages by Aaron Cruden’s extra-curricular activities. Despite this, the back line against the Pumas looked like they had been playing together for years. Beauden Barrett, still inexperienced and slightly raw, had an impressive game and kicked well, while Malakai Fekitoa was fantastic at inside centre. Strong and very athletic, he is a real prospect and was a serious contender for man of the match. Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris made his international debut as a replacement in the second half and it must be remembered that even a household name like Julian Savea is only 24.
To complement these exciting prospects, the All Blacks have a wealth of experience in the squad going into the World Cup, with stalwarts like Keven Mealamu, Kieran Read, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter and of course, their talismanic captain Richie McCaw (capped for a record equalling 133rd time vs Argentina). A lot can change between now and when the first match kicks off between England and Fiji in September, but it has to be said that New Zealand are a step ahead of everyone else right now. They have more star names than anyone else, the best balance to their squad and more strength in depth than any other team around. Right now they have to be placed as favourites to lift the World Cup in a year’s time. As for everyone else, there’s some catching up to do!