Brad Thorn, a Rugby World Cup winner and multiple NRL premiership champion, once reckoned it was harder to win a Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship tournament than the Rugby World Cup.
Teams can win the RWC tournament, as the Springboks did in 2007, without playing either the All Blacks or the Wallabies. The All Blacks won the 2011 RWC without playing the Springboks. So it is a remarkable achievement by the All Blacks to take out the tournament this year (and last year) by defeating both the Wallabies and the Springboks in their home-and-away Tests.
The Springboks, aside from their two losses to the All Blacks, racked up relatively good statistics in The Rugby Championship 2013: played 6, won 4; points for 203, against 117; 4 tries three times. But the All Blacks' statistics were superlative: played 6, won 6; points for 202, against 115; 4 tries four times. The All Blacks wrapped up the tournament with a sensational 38-27 win at Ellis Park, scoring five tries to four against a determined, vibrant and greatly improved Springboks side. The game itself was a Test for the ages. If league tragics bad-mouth rugby as a spectacle, let them watch this Test. No code, at any time, could surpass this Test for drama, excitement and exceptional attack and defence.
The ominous thing for the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas going into future tournaments is that the All Blacks are an old/young side on a rising trajectory. Nine of the squad at Ellis Park are in their second or first year with the All Blacks. And in Aaron Smith the All Blacks finally have a world-class halfback.
The statistics for the Wallabies make for depressing reading: played 6, won 2; points for 133, against 153; four tries once. In the Robbie Deans era, the Wallabies regularly defeated the Springboks in Australia and occasionally in South Africa.
This season the Wallabies were thrashed by the Springboks at Brisbane and at Cape Town. The Wallabies' two victories were against the Pumas, who are yet to win a Test in The Rugby Championship. That is the bad news. The good news is that in their last Test of the 2013 tournament, the Wallabies thrashed the Pumas in their heartland of Rosario 54-17, scoring seven tries to two. Significantly, too, the Wallabies actually tamed the Pumas scrum in the latter stages of the Test.
Early on in the Test, after going 7-0 behind, the Pumas forced a series of scrums near the Wallabies' try line. Ben Alexander could be heard calling out to the Wallabies' pack: "We know what's going to happen now, guys." Good call. The Pumas tried to scrum the Wallabies into oblivion. The Wallabies resisted as hard as they could but after conceding three penalties, as the Pumas tried for push- over tries, James Slipper was given a yellow card. On trotted Benn Robinson. The seven-man Wallaby pack held. The ball squirted out. Michael Hooper grabbed it. And the line was held.
We have to applaud the English referee Wayne Barnes here. Barnes has been involved in some controversial refereeing performances. But at Rosario he was excellent. When the Pumas called for penalty tries, Barnes explained to them that some of the penalties against the Wallabies were for going early and other infractions, rather than collapsing to stop a drive. Later on in the Test, Barnes told the Pumas that once their scrum became stationary, the "use-it or lose-it" rule applied. The Pumas lost all enthusiasm for scrumming after that when they could no longer hold the ball and then collapse the scrum if the shove wasn't working.
It has always been a mystery to me why referees this season haven't applied the "use-it or lose-it" rule in scrums to teams such as the British and Irish Lions, the Pumas and the Springboks this season.
Ewen McKenzie came into The Rugby Championship with the promise that he knew how to beat the All Blacks. Whatever the plan is, it is a work in slow progress that needs to include the Springboks, as well. His 2013 report card reads: "Must do much better in 2014!"