This year's Rugby Championship has taken on an interesting schedule but come World Cup time I think we'll be extremely grateful for having played South Africa at Ellis Park. The All Blacks showed what they are all about on Sunday morning as they weren't quite at the level that we would all hope for, but they stuck to their guns and enjoyed a few bits of luck to get the win.
That conundrum of looking at games in isolation vs preparing for the World Cup again makes this a tricky game to fully understand. In a vacuum, it's hard not to get caught up in the epic nature of this win as South Africa, as they do at home, brought the ruckus and asked many questions of the All Blacks both in the forwards and out wider. But when it came time to change gears, the All Blacks' clutch was working and they had the audacity and ability to perfectly execute a training park move.
Moving forward though, the biggest story here is Lima Sopoaga and his performance which should see him leapfrog Colin Slade. Slade hasn't been seen at first-five so far in the RC and any game time he has enjoyed has come at fullback or on the, which is a nod to his utility value but Slade is now ranked fourth on our depth chart at the first five position.
Israel Dagg didn't exactly make a compelling case to remain as the starting fullback for the All Blacks, but it's pretty clear that Shag and the All Blacks will persist with him there. I see this as a good time to note that we are heading into a World Cup, where the All Blacks will play hard games and easy games meaning that it's extremely unlikely that the same team will run out on the paddock for each game. The ability to play Dagg at fullback for one game and then seamlessly switch to Ben Smith at fullback for the next game is crucial and the same can be said for the first-five situation - Dan Carter won't be starting every game.
While Sopoaga's stable - he didn't shine, but he didn't crumble in a hostile environment, performance complicated the first-five spot, the inter-connected backline battles are also very murky. Charles Piutau has started in three games and done the business in each of those three games, which as I've said before is very interesting considering he's off to Europe next year.
That inter-connected idea is important because if Dagg is unable to hold the starting fullback spot then Ben Smith's move there would open up a spot for Piutau.
A great positive is the pressure being put on Conrad Smith. Many of us assume that Conrad will be a lock to start in the midfield with Ma'a Nonu, but there is pressure on him to perform as a certain Sonny Bill Williams who offers a vastly different skill-set is waiting for his chance and Malakai Fekitoa is no mug either. Conrad (first name basis thanks to all dem Smiddys) was well below par against South Africa and while it's a stretch, if he strings a few average games together (which he's never done) he could swiftly find himself clutching at straws. A few missed tackles and a bit of a falcon have put him on the back foot but you wouldn't expect it to last.
Nonu's shoulder injury could present an opportunity to SBW or Fekitoa, which would make things interesting.
In the forwards things still remain pretty settled which strong performances from those from whom we expect strong showings, but the work of Dane Coles was possibly the biggest highlight. Many teams will try and emulate how the All Blacks use their forwards in the midfield, but few teams have a hooker who is capable of the work that Coles can get through while also being a willing, able and skilled player out in the backline.
As expected, we should see Coles stick it out as the number one hooker with Kevin Mealamu his back-up. Couldn't be happier with this combination and Codie Taylor is firming as a solid third option.
While Sopoaga made his case for a World Cup spot, James Broadhurst didn't quite reach such heights. Whether Broadhurst was in the mix for a World Cup spot was debatable, but I can't see him being included over Sam Whitelock, let alone Luke Romano. I'm not sure if they'll take three or four locks to the World Cup, Broadhurst's best chance is as the fourth lock.
We do however know that Shag will more than likely take two blindside flankers and Liam Messam didn't make this choice any easier. Much will be made about the closeness of this game and in isolation, it was a great contest but had the All Blacks had the super duper physical Jerome Kaino, I'm not sure how the Springboks would have responded.
Where Kaino makes bone-crunching hits and seems to always be in the thick of the action, Messam only really featured when he gave away a penalty. We didn't see enough of Victor Vito to come to any sense of clarity as to Kaino's back up so surely Shag has to give both Messam and Vito another chance in the next two games against the Wallabies. What would be achieved by playing Kaino, besides winning?
Can we all agree that Richie McCaw is still our god? People were questioning McCaw, and I can see where they were coming from as father-time approaches and the plethora of sponsorships that McCaw's involved in flood our telly screens, but damn, this dude just keeps on showing up. He looks extremely fit - he's still big but looks to have trimmed off the excess, and the fact that McCaw had the clarity of mind to A) go for lineout when a penalty would have leveled the scores and B) hit the play-book, so late in the game show that McCaw is in the zone.
This was far from perfect as the All Blacks still made a whole bunch of mistakes whether handling the ball or missing tackles that we've all seen them make time and time again. They did however manage to get the bickies and with that I'm rolling out a 7.5/10. Ka pai.
We've had two games, about time to roll out a best-23.
Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Brodie Rettalick, Luke Romano, Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock.
Beaden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams, Charles Piutau/TJ Perenara, Kevin Mealamu, Sam Whitelock, Liam Messam/Victor Vito, Charlie Faumuina(?), Tony Woodcock.
Despite the Springboks once again show a few lapses of judgement and concentration that ultimately cost them the game, I'm growing very weary but excited at what this team could become. I say become because they still have plenty of things to figure out and, more importantly, I don't think we have really seen them show us as rugby fans, everything that they can offer.
All Blacks fans and kiwis in general may question this, but there's just something missing from this Springboks side and while they did have a few starters absent, I don't think it's to do with personnel. Like all teams, including the All Blacks, the Springboks looked like they were just holding a few things back and the fact that they were better than the All Blacks for the majority of this game will be very encouraging to them.
All the Springboks played above-average, they all put in 7/10 performances and I don't really know where to start in terms of highlighting gooduns'. Schalk Burger was crazy, that's the only word that describe this dude as one minute he's in the midfield serving up a crisp pass and the next minute he's destroying a soul at the breakdown. Burger can do as he pleases, but it did look like he enjoyed a bit more freedom that the number 8 jersey offers, this came with Francois Louw and Heinrich Brussow working well at the breakdown and the Springboks proved to be a major upgrade on the Argentinians in this department.
I'm not sure if there's many teams who could go toe-to-toe with the physicality of the All Blacks (if England, France or Australia can then they'll have a chance), but South Africa have the size and mobility that will cause Shag and his coaching staff a few headaches. Especially with the locking stocks of the Springboks looking extremely healthy given that Victor Matfield was sipping wine in the stands. Lood de Jager and Eben Etzebeth could possibly keep Matfield sipping wine as they were awesome. Throw in the always impressive Flip van der Merwe and there's plenty of depth for the Boks.
This has long been the case, hence Ellis Park is such an arena to play rugby but the Springboks' backline now has the potency to back up the work of the forwards. Every time I see Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende play, I smile - they go good. The issue for coach Heyneke Meyer is that the veteran Jean de Villiers is coming back from a calf injury and played for Western Province on the weekend. At least it's great to know that there's depth for South Africa and after seeing Kriel and de Allende both have their moments against the All Blacks, I wouldn't be sure that de Villiers would walk back into the side.
His best chance is that the Springboks could use a calming, veteran influence in their backline as everyone in that backline loves to go at full speed. Handre Pollard once again looked good and his eagerness to run the footy will serve him well, especially as his outside men demand greater attention. The All Blacks pushed up hard on their midfield which shut down Pollard's options but he's got that Dan Carter switch where he looks outside and nothing's on, so the switch is flicked and he makes something happen in front of him. Many first-fives will do the same, but will make an average carry which is punished by being isolated but Pollard runs with confidence and looks good doing so.
Again, Willie Le Roux was a threat but the more I see of him the more wildcard-ish he looks. He could win a game, but he could also lose it.
Australia vs Argentina? Not even worth it.