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Not so sure about Kiwi decline

The Springboks have a much better chance of beating the All Blacks when they meet in Albany on Saturday than they have had in a while, but let’s not get duped into thinking too much about what some might consider a Kiwi decline.

It is true that the All Blacks look more beatable than they have been in a while. Perhaps the British and Irish Lions series brought them back down to the level of mere mortality. After dominating world rugby as emphatically as they have over the past couple of years dating back to 2009, and after whitewashing the Lions in their previous series in 2005, New Zealanders would not have been happy with a drawn rubber.

Many felt sorry for the Wallabies having to be the first team to face them after that disappointing drawn final test. And in the first half of the opening Bledisloe test in Sydney, those fears on behalf of the Aussies appeared to be well founded. They were reaping the whirlwind.

In the second half though the All Blacks appeared to lose the plot a bit. It was almost as if they were trying too hard to make it a really big score, and it was then that we started to see the tendency to force passes and plays become apparent.

In the following test in Dunedin the All Blacks were given their closest game by the Wallabies in quite a while, and then for an hour in New Plymouth at the weekend Argentina stuck with them.

It has given rise to understandable hope among Bok supporters and that is understandable. The premise that if the Pumas could be so competitive against the All Blacks then the Boks could subject them to an even more probing examination is correct. The All Blacks do seem more stretched than they were before.

The number of different combinations they have used this year might be testament to that, though at the same time we also need to bear in mind that Steve Hansen is spreading his depth. And that is where I bring in the caveat and have to warn people against rushing off to the bookmakers to place money on the Boks: The Kiwis are going through a bit of a transitional phase by blooding new players, but they are still winning.

Yes, they did lose one game to the Lions, but let’s be honest about that defeat – it was to a well selected, organised and coached Lions team on a day where the All Blacks played most of the game with only 14 men because of the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams.

The 14-man All Blacks led that match right to the end. How many other teams would have managed that?

The final test was drawn because they failed to kick their goals and take their opportunities, and perhaps the goalkicking debate that should have intensified in New Zealand after replacement flyhalf Lima Sopoaga steadied the All Black ship by kicking crucial points against Argentina is a mirror of the reason they suddenly don’t appear as far ahead as they were.

When Sopoaga kicked a penalty in the second half we were told it was the first successful penalty kick from the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship. That was three matches into the competition. Earlier in the year the Hurricanes went heaps of games without kicking for posts. It almost became their signature.

Perhaps the Kiwis are used to it happening quickly for them and are so used to scoring a truckload of tries that they forget basics such as what the accumulation of points through kicking at posts can do for you in terms of placing scoreboard pressure on the opposition.

Maybe, to use that horrible old cliche, they have become less inclined to build their innings before trying to hit their sixes because they've been allowed to get away with it.

There may be just a hint of complacency born out of expectation and that can lead to a looseness and forcing of passes that plays into opposition hands.

That may have happened to the Hurricanes in their Super Rugby semifinal against the Lions. There was a stage of the first half where, once they got ahead, the Hurricanes became way too over-elaborate and they left several points on the table as a result. Those missed points came back to bite them.

Yet the following facts are inescapable and point to a team that will be damn difficult to beat – they came back from a 17-point deficit to beat the Wallabies, they won it with an audacious moment of brilliance from their captain at a restart when they had just fallen behind with two minutes to go, they remain masters at turning what look like close games at the hour mark into one-sided contests.

They have introduced 25 new players into their test squad since the 2015 World Cup, which suggests they are in a transitional phase, and yet they’ve only lost twice in that time. So to say that the Boks have a better chance now than they have had in a while is really only if you look at it relative to how dominant they have been.

Their record tells you they remain the benchmark for rugby excellence.

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