Australia scored a late try to beat South Africa in their opening game of the Rugby Championship in Brisbane last Saturday. Australia 24-20 South Africa was the final score and though the Wallabies were by no means brilliant, they managed hang in there. Kept asking the resolute Boks defence questions, and managed to take gaps right when it mattered most.
So as James Horwil and the Wallabies celebrated the last-minute victory over the Springboks. The question popped into my head. How important is this match? Better yet, how important is the Rugby Championship in a World Cup year?
Based on team stats and pedigree alone one can be forgiven for assuming that in a World Cup year, the Rugby Championship tournament is a good indicator for World Cup favourites. In other words, the side that dominates Rugby Championship should logically be the best team in the world.
However, on the contrary this is not the case.
Since 1996 when the Rugby Championship was establish in the Tri-Nations format, no team has managed have win it and the World Cup in the same year. Three nations who have a combined six World Cup titles out of the seven that have been held thus far, none have managed to win both in the same year.
New Zealand has won the southern hemisphere title on three occasions in a World Cup year. Namely 1999, 2003 and 2007; but were unable to make the finals each time. Australia won it ahead of the 2011 World Cup, and was also eliminated in the semi final.
In fact, it would appear that if you finish as runner up you stand a better chance of winning the World Cup. For example Australia in 1999, and New Zealand in 2011 both finished second in the Championship and then went on to win the World Cup, while only one team has won the World Cup having finished third in the Southern Hemisphere competition and that was us, in 2007.
Let’s be honest, one could say Rugby Championship is important preparation for the World Cup. This is because you are competing against New Zealand and Australia who are arguably the greatest rugby nations in the world. But off course you have to accept that the world will venerate a “World Champion” more than a “Southern Hemisphere Champion.” Because well, that is just how the world works.
In a World Cup you can find yourself in a semi final without being tested just by sheer luck of the draw. But in the Rugby Championship you are tested every week. The only easy fixture is that against Argentina, and even they are improving every year. Even in our weakest years when we finished a season without a team in the semi-finals of the Super 15 (2003), we still managed a World Cup quarter final finish.
So the fact that we are going to England, putting together a campaign to win the World Cup ( a four yearly tournament) for the third time in 20 years, over shadows the fact that we have only managed to win the tougher more challenging Rugby Champions (an annual tournament) three times in as many years. So I have to ask myself the question, are we the rugby super power that we claim to be? Or are we a nation dressed in borrowed robes?
In any case I digress; we will deal with that some other time.
Back to the original question, how important is the Rugby Championship in a World Cup year? And why is it that a team that wins the Rugby Champions does not get to win the Wolrd Cup.
Perhaps a case can be made for player fatigue. In other words could it be that there is a positive correlation between resting key players for the Tri-Nations and producing a successful World Cup campaign?
For example, in 2011 the New Zealand fielded a team with fringe players for the final two Tri-Nations matches, lost both matches, and then went on to win the World Cup. While in 2007 Jake White decided to rest his injured top players for the final few matches of the Tri-Nations campaign. The Springboks went on to dominate World Cup.
If this hypothesis be true, then Heyneke Meyer finds himself in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, some of his top players are coming off the injury list needing game time, so they can get the touch of the ball at the highest level in order to prepare for the World Cup. So the Rugby Championship is a logical tournament to use for that. Guys like Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Patrick Lambie and Frans Steyn need game time.
On the other hand not only does he run the risk of exacerbating the recovering injury thus ruling them out for the World Cup completely. But he also runs the risk of loading them too quickly and over exerting them before we take off for England RWC2015.
So I ask again, how important is the Rugby Championship in a World Cup year? Better year how important is the Rugby Championship for the Springboks this year?
I tell you what! I am glad I am not the man charged with the responsibility of answering that question.
Ek vra maar net?
The tempest prognosticator
Themba A Dikgale