Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks easing to title is indictment of the competition

All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa embraces midfield partner Ryan Crotty in Hamilton. Photo / Jason Oxenham
All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa embraces midfield partner Ryan Crotty in Hamilton. Photo / Jason Oxenham

There's a possibility the All Blacks could be crowned Rugby Championship winners next weekend in Christchurch.

If they beat the Springboks with a bonus point victory and Australia beat Argentina, that will be it. Game over - the All Blacks will have won after four rounds which may end up saying more about the standard of others than it does about them.

Since the new format and the arrival of Argentina in 2012, the All Blacks have won three of the four championships - winning after five rounds in 2012 and 2014 and on the last weekend in 2013.

To have things wrapped up before they head offshore would be both a stunning achievement and a stunning indictment of the overall quality of the competition.

Australia simply failed to offer anything constructive or effective against the All Blacks in two tests and Argentina, creative and dangerous for 50 minutes in Hamilton, were thumped by 35 points in the end.

The scoreline didn't fairly reflect the efforts or abilities of the Pumas and exaggerated the gap in quality between the two sides, but there is still a gap nonetheless.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is not so sure, however, that the other three teams are as far behind the All Blacks as it may appear. He's of the view that the All Blacks have settled into their gameplan quicker than the other three, largely because they know without ambiguity what style of rugby they are trying to play.

"I don't think the gap is as big as everyone thinks it is," said Hansen. "I know that some people are saying the standard of rugby isn't that great in other teams but I think it is.

"Some teams haven't got themselves sorted about how they want to play yet. We are really clear on how we want to play and maybe it is forcing other teams to look at how they want to play and they are trying to change their style a wee bit from what suits them and it is probably not beneficial for them to do that."

One of those teams without a fixed idea yet is South Africa. Wedded under previous coach Heyneke Meyer to what was known as traditional Springboks rugby, the picture hasn't been so obvious under new man Allister Coetzee.

He's built his side around the successful Lions Super Rugby team who made the final with an expansive, ball in hand approach. It was a style that suited them, but it may not necessarily be the style that will work best for the Boks.

"I think they had real success in Super Rugby with the Lions and a lot of the players in that team [Springboks] are from the Lions," says Hansen. "So I'm not sure that the coach isn't sure how he wants to play. I am sure that he probably is but it takes time for new coaches and personnel like they have because a lot of senior guys have left, to find out how they want to play.

"If it is contrasting to where the majority of your players come from, it makes it more difficult."

Whatever the difficulties in finding the right gameplan, Hansen is certain that the Boks won't lack for motivation this week having now lost two on the trot. Desperation may be the tool they need to all come together and settle on a brand of rugby that works for all of them.

- NZ Herald

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