Monday, October 08, 2012

The 2012 Rugby Championship

All Black fan Tim Cronin from RugbyShirts.net is more than happy to wrap up the inaugural competition!

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The inaugural Rugby Championship concluded on the weekend, with the All Blacks remaining unbeaten, and now steadily closing in on the mighty Lithuania’s record winning streak of 18 test matches.

The year after any World Cup is traditionally a dour one for international rugby. Players have retired, coaches are experimenting with personnel for the future, and there is the inevitable ‘come-down’ after the excitement of competing for the Webb Ellis trophy. This year has been no different.

While the All Blacks dominated the competition, finishing on 26 points, with South Africa and Australia both scoring 12, for much of the tournament they were average at best. The world champs probably had more to play for than any other side in the tournament – the quest to set a new world record winning streak, and the pressure of living up to their standing as the number one side in the world. But they didn’t necessarily dominate the competition as decisively as the final table suggests.

They should have put away the Wallabies more comprehensively in both their opening games. The Aussies were totally bereft of confidence, and it was the All Blacks’ inability to finish try-scoring opportunities clinically and really put the foot on the throat that saved Robbie Deans’ men further embarrassment.

South Africa outplayed the Blacks in New Zealand, and probably should have one, and Argentina adapted better to Wellington’s atrocious conditions when they visited, but lacked the self-belief to turn a courageous performance in to a memorable win.

The AB’s were fantastic in Argentina, although the expansive game-plan they entered the match with could have back-fired on them. Fortunately, early passes stuck, and their fast start (albeit once the hosts had opened the scoring themselves) dented the competition newcomer’s confidence and took their parochial crowd out of the game.

They were great in their final outing too, although the coaching staff will be concerned by their inability to retain possession and earn territory. But overall, I think the All Blacks were the best of a competition where all teams played below their best, accept perhaps the Pumas.

The Pumas were the other side with much to play for. A side that relies on passion at the best of times, the South Americans were buoyed by the excitement of finally entering the big time, and they played with steel and heart each time they donned the blue and white jersey.

Next season will be a tough one for the Pumas. Where this year, solid performances were enough to repay their fans’ loyalty and show the world that they belonged with the big boys, next year the expectation will be to win. Maybe not the whole tournament, but at least a game or two. Without the motivation of entering a new competition, the Pumas will have to find the self-belief to turn their aggressive, combative style in to victories, and I think we might see them tumble back to earth somewhat next season.

The South Africans were disappointed in their performance throughout the competition, but I don’t necessarily think they’re in a bad place, three years out from the next world cup. A new coach invariably takes time to adjust to, and this season was undoubtedly a ‘feeling-out’ year for Heneke Meyer. His conservative game-plan, which focused around Morne Steyn being as accurate as ever, backfired, resulting in the Bulls five-eight being given the boot, and the style of play they employed in their last two games, in their comprehensive victory over the Wallabies and their entertaining loss to the All Blacks, holds much potential moving forward.

They were criticised for their ineffective displays at the breakdown in the first half of the competition, but there is so much depth in the loose-forward department of South African rugby that this will be easily sorted over time. They have exciting young players in the mix, many of whom featured in the Championship this year and who will have grown immensely from the experience, and I think the ‘Boks are tracking okay at this stage.

Obviously the Wallabies took the most stick from media, fans and commentators during the tournament, and I certainly jumped on the band-wagon at times. But the fact that they scrambled in to a second place finish on the final table, and secured a gutsy win in a hostile environment in Argentina in the final round, when their side was absolutely injury ravaged and expected to lose, shows the determination and self-belief that Aussie sportsmen seem to be born with.

Yes, there are problems in Australian Rugby. Deans hasn’t been great, and he obviously hasn’t connected with the rugby community and his players over there. Likewise, the players themselves have to learn some cold hard facts about maturity and professionalism.

But I think they deserve some credit for the way they fought in the face of such adversity, and I’ve certainly learnt over the years that you can never write off the Australians. My first inclination is to feel that the Lions should clean-sweep them next year, but I can also see a fairytale happening – Deans gets the shove, Ewan McKenzie comes on board and inspires the Wallabies to a famous 2-1 series win. Time will tell!

Tim Cronin is a Rugby fan and full time writer based in the rubble of the Canterbury Crusaders’ home town, Christchurch. Tim is a part of the Pukeko Sportsteam, where his role is watching, writing, and complaining about all things rugby.

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