Evidence doesn't suggest the All Blacks can be stopped
The question the Springboks‚ Wallabies and Pumas will be asking themselves this week as the Rugby Championship takes centre stage is: ‘Can the All Blacks be stopped?’
Throughout the five-year history of the Rugby Championship‚ those three teams have been vying for second place and nothing suggests it will be different in 2017.
The All Blacks have won four of the five instalments of the tournament‚ their only blemish being in 2015 when their entire focus was on a successful defence of the World Cup.
Australia won a truncated Championship that year but NZ took home the World Cup‚ which justified their decision to experiment during the 2015 edition of the Championship.
Over the five-year history of the tournament the All Blacks have won four titles and a total of 24 out of 27 matches‚ with a mere two losses and a draw.
They have gone through three of the five campaigns undefeated.
The All Blacks have taken 115 log points from a possible 135‚ which included a maximum of 30 last season.
To put that in perspective‚ the Springboks have accumulated 62 log points over the five seasons‚ Australia 59 and the Argentina 23.
NZ have also scored 107 tries and only conceded 35 in those 27 matches for an average winning score of 33-16. They are miles ahead.
At Super Rugby level NZ sides continue to dominate.
In the past two seasons‚ since the tournament was expanded to include 18 teams‚ the six NZ franchises have played exactly 100 games against ‘foreign’ opponents and won 86.
Although all the teams are talking a good game before the tournament starts‚ evidence doesn’t stack up that they have any chance of turning the tide against NZ.
A full strength Pumas lost a home series to a second string England in June and the Jaguares have been poor in Super Rugby‚ mustering a measly 11 wins out of 30 matches.
Australian rugby appears to be at an all time low with Perth-based franchise the Western Force set to take the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) to court over its axing from Super Rugby last week.
The impasse‚ which has dragged on for months‚ has led to the resignation of ARU chief executive Bill Pulver.
At Super Rugby level‚ only the Brumbies made the play-offs in 2017‚ and that was only by virtue of at least one team from the Aussie conference guaranteed a place in the post-season. Aussie teams won a measly six out of 46 games against ‘foreign’ teams. They lost 26 out of 26 against NZ franchises.
The Wallabies have gone backwards since winning the 2015 Championship and making the World Cup final in the same year. In June they laboured to a home win over Italy before losing to Scotland in Sydney.
Since that World Cup final appearance they have won only eight of 18 Tests.
South African rugby hasn't fared much better but at least at Super Rugby level the Lions have made the last two finals.
The Springboks lost eight of 12 Tests in 2016 but appear to have turned the corner after beating an injury-ravaged France 3-0 in the June series.
The All Blacks also showed their first signs of vulnerability in years during their drawn June series against the British & Irish Lions where the tourists’ smothering press defence highlighted some weaknesses in the All Blacks’ game.
But knowing what unnerved the All Blacks and somehow putting it into practice is the challenge that their rivals face in the Rugby Championship.
It’s at least a small crumb of hope for the chasing pack.
The Wallabies have first crack against NZ over the coming fortnight with matches in Sydney and Dunedin‚ which double up as Bledisloe Cup encounters.
The outcomes of those clashes will reveal whether the gap between the All Blacks and the rest is closing‚ or widening.