Team of the Rugby Championship
Eleven All Blacks, three Springboks and one Puma. The lack of Wallabies is notable, but it reflects the injury list and inconsistency of the performances. Photo: Getty Images
1. The gap to the All Blacks has not been closed. Such has been the noise surrounding the injury list it is easy to forget that David Pocock, Will Genia, Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu, Rob Horne, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Berrick Barnes were all fit for duty in Bledisloe I, when the Wallabies lacked the grunt and grey matter to challenge the world champions. One week later in Auckland and the game was over as a contest after 50 minutes. There is a sizeable space between the old rivals that will continue to furrow brows even after the excellent weekend win in Rosario is taken into consideration. Perhaps the most accurate conclusion is this: Robbie Deans does not have Steve Hansen's riches to play with, nor influence over the Super franchises. But even if these handicaps are accepted, it was reasonable to expect much more. The Bledisloe scoreline was 4-0 to the All Blacks in 2009, and there could be another whitewash in 2012.
2. Richie McCaw was the player of the tournament. Kieran Read's supporters might dispute it and their case is sound, but the younger man doesn't yet have the responsibilities of captaincy to worry about, not yet. McCaw, free of 2011's foot problems, is 50 per cent better than he was last year. In the one game it looked like the All Blacks could lose, against the Springboks in Dunedin, he produced the match-turning display, roaming all over the park to contest every ruck and inducing the red mist to descend in front of Dean Greyling. He now has 100 Test wins from 112 Tests.
3. Michael Hooper was the young player of the tournament. The award is even more valuable given the quality of the field. Aaron Smith has given the All Blacks their Genia and Brodie Retallick is their next great second-rower. Eben Etzebeth will play for a decade for South Africa and Johan Goosen showed glimpses. But Hooper has improved as the tournament progressed, which is an astonishing feat for a young man playing in a pack that rarely enjoyed dominance. David Pocock will return to the No.7 when he is fit – if nothing else to give Hooper a breather – but there are interesting debates ahead about the Wallabies' openside position.
4. Pace, and fitness, is still king. The All Blacks' most influential selection this year has been the introduction of Aaron Smith at No.9. His quick, wide passing must give defence coaches sleepless nights, such is his ability to create the one-on-ones and overlaps the All Blacks thrive on. Rugby on the small screen can give the impression of being claustrophobic, but there is space out there for quick hands and minds to exploit. If the Wallabies want to beat the All Blacks in Brisbane in two weeks' time, they will either have to find another gear, or a way to slow them down.
5. The team of the tournament is:
15. Israel Dagg (NZ)
14. Cory Jane (NZ)
13. Conrad Smith (NZ)
12. Ma'a Nonu (NZ)
11. Bryan Habana (South Africa)
10. Dan Carter (NZ)
9. Aaron Smith (NZ)
8. Kieran Read (NZ)
7. Richie McCaw (NZ)
6. Liam Messam (NZ)
5. Sam Whitelock (NZ)
4. Luke Romano ((NZ)
3. Jannie du Plessis (SA)
2. Adriaan Strauss (SA)
1. Rodrigo Roncero (Argentina).
The lack of Wallabies is notable, but it reflects the injury list and inconsistency of the performances. But, aside from Hooper, Sitaleki Timani deserves a mention. Deans has got him fitter (he was the second forward to the breakdown after Hooper's 70m dash from a lineout steal at the weekend) and his ball-carrying potential is obvious.