Now that the inaugural Rugby Championship has ended, Gregor Paul looks at the top 10 lessons learned from the new championship, the new era and the new format
1. Bok adventure needed
The Springboks are the most likely contenders to knock the All Blacks off their perch - but only if they supplement their core up-the-guts game with a touch of adventure. They have a young side with physical presence and a basic game plan of hammering the collisions, kicking high and chasing. It is effective; it puts opponents under pressure. But it's not enough to win big games consistently.
If coach Heyneke Meyer can be patient with both Johan Goosen and Elton Jantjies - encourage them to back their instincts at No 10 - then by the middle of next year, South Africa could have enough weaponry to close the gap on the All Blacks. If they go back to picking Morne Steyn at first-five they will stagnate, waste precious development time.
2. Wings flying
The finishing wing made a startling and welcome comeback. A total of 44 tries were scored during the competition and 19 were claimed by wings. Bryan Habana showed the value of a wing that can pounce on a quarter chance and turn it into five points. His solo try in Dunedin was spectacular and he gave his side momentum in Soweto when he scored the opening try. Cory Jane finished opportunities in Argentina other wings wouldn't have and Julian Savea and Digby Ioane used their power to convert pressure into points.
3. Using the ball
The All Blacks proved that it's not strictly relevant how much possession teams have - it is what they do with it that counts. In Soweto, Dunedin and Sydney, the All Blacks spent prolonged periods without the ball and the final statistics showed they barely enjoyed 40 per cent of possession. But they only need one turnover to flip defence into attack and score. The All Blacks barely touched the ball in the first half in South Africa and yet scored 12 points in two lightning raids. When they scored directly from the second half re-start, they broke the spirit of the Boks. South Africa had enjoyed territorial and possession domination and yet they trailled 19-16.
4. Middling midfield
Pre-tournament, the focus was on the Wallaby scrum - rated as being too frail to cope. It actually held up well and the biggest area of weakness for the Australians was their midfield. They tried many combinations and none of them worked. Worse, the individuals were lacking virtually everything required. There was no direct bruising presence; there was no creativity; there was no sleight of hand or clever angled runs or devious ploys. They had a collection of journeymen who offered no attacking threat. They need to find something more threatening on their end of year tour.
5. Read it and leap
Kieran Read proved he's not only the best No 8 in the world but that he is also the natural successor to Richie McCaw. Proximity to McCaw has resulted in Read being a virtual clone: he has that same intensity on the field in terms of his work-rate, physicality and desire. Not only does he lead by the same shining example - Read has that quiet authority, that steely reserve and determination to settle and inspire the troops with his verbal deliveries. It wouldn't be a surprise to see McCaw rested for one game in Europe and Read given the chance to captain the side.
6. Puma power
Argentina were a worthy and valuable addition to the competition bringing with them what All Black coach Steve Hansen reckoned was the best defence in world rugby. It was high praise and largely true until they ran out of steam in the back half of the competition. If Argentina retain the foundations of their game - defence, scrum, lineout, mauls - and add accuracy, width, tempo and some Latin flair and if they can learn to deal with the intensity for both the duration of individual tests and the entire competition, they could be challenging for titles by 2015.
7. Fitness beats travel
The travel factor can be dealt with if the management of players, training and preparation are smart and considered. The All Blacks played their best rugby after brutal long haul flights and time zone changes. Not only did they win comfortably in Argentina and South Africa, they played at breathtaking pace. The key to their performances was their basic aerobic fitness. All Black conditioning coach Nick Gill has taken this side to new levels: they can run for 80 minutes and have the confidence to go hard from the start.
8. Flanker factory
Australia has surpassed New Zealand in the production of high quality, ball-winning openside flankers. Serious injury to David Pocock should have been a major blow to the Wallabies but instead, 20-year-old Michael Hooper stepped up and played superbly. Another 20-year-old, Liam Gill was just as good when he came off the bench and it can't surely be long before the Wallabies realise they may be better trying to play with two opensides, keep the ball in hand more and try to take the game away from the collisions.
9. Good goalkickers wanted
It's hardly a new finding, but this championship illustrated the value of accurate goalkicking. The Boks may have won in Dunedin had Morne Steyn not missed 21 points. They might have won again in Soweto had Goosen and Jantjies landed more than half their kicks. Argentina struggled, too, with their goal-kicking and it was demoralising for those respective packs to create so much pressure and then not see it converted. The All Blacks while not at their targeted rate of 80 per cent, were able to take points at times when they weren't dominating the game. That was priceless.
10. Enforcers not missed
The loss of Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino was not debilitating. The All Blacks may have lacked a touch of mongrel - it was surprising to see no retaliation in Dunedin after McCaw was hit off the ball by Dean Greyling - but McCaw and Read stepped up as enforcers of sorts to cover some of that snarling, brooding stuff Thorn and Kaino were so good at.
The pace with which the All Blacks played also eliminated the need for them to have an intimidating presence. On the core skills front, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano delivered strong scrummaging and collision work while Liam Messam came of age and carried and tackled in much the same vein as Kaino.By Gregor Paul Email Gregor