Who can put a stop to the All Blacks magic?
The All Blacks have won four of the five instalments of the tournament
The question the Springboks‚ Wallabies and Pumas will be asking themselves this week as the Rugby Championship takes centre stage is: can the All Blacks be stopped?
Throughout the five-year history of the Rugby Championship‚ those three teams have been vying for second place and nothing suggests it will be different in 2017.
The All Blacks have won four of the five instalments of the tournament‚ their only blemish being in 2015, when their focus was on a successful defence of the World Cup. Australia won a truncated championship that year, but New Zealand took home the World Cup‚ which justified their decision to experiment during the 2015 edition of the championship.
Over the five-year history of the tournament, the All Blacks have won four titles and a total of 24 out of 27 matches‚ with a mere two losses and a draw. They have gone through three of the five campaigns undefeated.
The All Blacks have taken 115 log points from a possible 135‚ which included a maximum of 30 last season. To put that in perspective‚ the Springboks have accumulated 62 log points over the five seasons‚ Australia 59 and Argentina 23.
New Zealand have also scored 107 tries and only conceded 35 in those 27 matches for an average winning score of 33-16. They are miles ahead.
At Super Rugby level, New Zealand sides continue to dominate. In the past two seasons‚ since the tournament was expanded to 18 teams‚ the six New Zealand franchises have played 100 games against "foreign" opponents and won 86.
Although all the teams are talking a good game before the tournament starts‚ evidence does not stack up that they have any chance of turning the tide.
A full-strength Pumas lost a home series to a second string England in June and the Jaguares have been poor in Super Rugby‚ mustering 11 wins out of 30 matches.
Australian rugby appears to be at an all-time low, with Perth-based franchise the Western Force set to take the Australian Rugby Union to court over its axing from Super Rugby last week.
At Super Rugby level‚ only the Brumbies made the play-offs in 2017 and that was only by virtue of at least one team from the Aussie conference guaranteed a place in the post-season. Aussie teams won six out of 46 games against "foreign" teams. They lost 26 out of 26 against New Zealand franchises.
South African rugby has not fared much better, but at least at Super Rugby level, the Lions have made the past two finals.
The Springboks lost eight of 12 Tests in 2016, but appear to have turned the corner after beating an injury-ravaged France 3-0 in the June series.
The All Blacks also showed their first signs of vulnerability in years during their drawn June series against the British & Irish Lions when the tourists’ smothering defence highlighted some weaknesses in the All Blacks’ game.
But knowing what unnerved the All Blacks and somehow putting it into practice is the challenge that their rivals face in the championship.