OPINION: Beware the Boks. The more things change with our old mates across the Tasman, the more they stay the same with our greatest rivals in the republic.
We've been a bit preoccupied with the Wallabies of late but when you think about the challenge last year and the challenge that never goes away, it remains the South Africans. Nothing changes there.
Their tests against the All Blacks this year are important for them, not just for the Rugby Championship but working out how to beat the world champions.
South Africa have to find a formula that works for them going into the 2015 World Cup. You know the coach is going to be there, and you know he's going to go with a lot of experience. He's got some younger talent, but you always get the feeling they'll revert to type, and play a brand of football they're very familiar with.
Picking Victor Matfield is a cast-iron indication they're going to play to their strengths.
Last year they took the All Blacks head-on in Johannesburg, played one of their best tests for a long time and still weren't good enough to win.
In many ways it's more important to the Wallabies, the Boks and to a lesser extent the Pumas to find a way to beat the All Blacks than it is to win the competition. If the South Africans could split their games they'd be happy.
These next six weeks are important for all sides. The Pumas have got to compete, and the Wallabies have to overcome the muscular threat of the Springboks and get some reward for their perceived improvements. If that doesn't result in wins, have they really progressed?
The Boks need to start looking at what they're going to have in 15 months' time and what their formula for success will be. Do they introduce the new, or go with the old? Or a bit of both?
They will have to decide on that soon. I wonder if they're building the depth to absorb the challenges that will occur in World Cup year of losing players to injury or form.
We've had this fascination with the Wallabies because of Super Rugby, and after the Crusaders' demolition of the Sharks and poor performances by South African teams in general there's a perception they're in a lull. But they're always a dangerous beast. They lift for the big occasion, and relish playing the All Blacks.
That's why it's an important test in Wellington and again in Johannesburg. A loss to the Boks, with the draw in Sydney, would all of a sudden result in the All Blacks' least successful season for a long time.
Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. The last time the All Blacks lost the Tri-Nations they won a World Cup which tells you what you can gain from losing.
The Pumas have to be respected too. They will continue to play to their strengths which are mostly up front. Their biggest challenge will be the mental hurdle of getting up and beating the All Blacks for the first time.
It would be nice to see the Argentineans competitive across all tests this year. That would be the next step in their progression. If they lose to pieces of brilliance, they can live with that. But they need to scrum well, lineout well, tackle well, and just execute the basics.
I'm not sure they need a win to legitimise their place in this competition. There are real positives to having the Pumas on board. They challenge you physically, they force you to play, to back up, and to find some consistency.
Don't believe everything you hear around the demise of New Zealand rugby. Just because it hasn't been a stellar year across the board it doesn't mean we're in decline.
Things go in cycles.
The men's sevens and Black Ferns' have seen their run of success suddenly ended. And our investment and emphasis on the under-20s is simply nowhere near the same level as England or South Africa.
You can't make excuses. Sometimes you just have to give other countries credit for developing systems and responding to the challenge.
But it doesn't mean New Zealand rugby is in decline. The All Blacks and women's sevens team remain dominant. Our Super Rugby sides were strong across the board. Our under-20s pushed the South Africans to the limit. It's drawing a long bow to call that a crisis.
If the trophies keep disappearing over the next 12 to 18 months, it might be time to ask questions. But these challenges are forcing New Zealand Rugby to keep looking for ways to get better.
- Sunday Star Times
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