Another year, another title for the all-conquering All Blacks.
Saturday’s clinical 34-13 victory over Argentina set the seal on a third consecutive Rugby Championship crown with one round still to play.
They are also unbeaten in the sport’s toughest competition for three straight years with Australia’s draw in Sydney this year the closest any of their southern hemisphere rivals have come to breaking their stranglehold on title. It is a simply stunning record, one that commands and quite rightly has the respect of the rest of the rugby world.
Steve Hansen’s side continue to set the standard with a brilliant blend of precision, power and flair perhaps best personified by the phenomenal talent that is Julian Savea.
The All Blacks winger turned in yet another blockbuster of a performance in La Plata to underline his status as the best in his position in the world and arguably the most valuable player on the planet. Of course, he benefits from the most industrious and talent-heavy pack in international rugby and a star-studded backline but there is no denying that he is a trump card in a deck full of aces.
His second half try at the Estadio Ciudad de La Plata showcased his jaw-dropping power and immediately triggered memories of another powerhouse winger – Jonah Lomu.
Savea received the ball on the touchline only to find his path to the try line peppered with Pumas – but he did not dwell on the quandary. He simply dropped his shoulder and a couple of gears, brushed off three would-be tacklers and skipped over the line for his 27th Test try in his 27th international appearance.
Yes, you read that right, 27 tries in 27 games. As a comparison, Lomu had 16 tries to his name at this stage in his career, Joe Rokocoko 30, Christian Cullen 24 and Doug Howlett 19. But Savea is so much more than a try-scoring machine.
His game has developed as he himself has matured – he only turned 24 in August.
He is a near-constant threat and his presence in any move, combined with his natural attributes and outstanding skill set ensure he creates almost as many opportunities for his team-mates.
The Pumas clash also provided a perfect example of this in the lead up to replacement TJ Perenara’s bonus point-clinching score that took the All Blacks out of reach at the top of the Rugby Championship table.
Lurking with intent once again on the left wing, Savea stepped inside one tackle before hitting the accelerator once more. Three defenders tried desperately to bring him down but managed only to slow his progress to the line.
But Savea and the All Blacks would not be denied. He weathered the tackles before delivering a sublime one-handed off load to Perenara who was able to claim the easiest of scores.
Add in the exemplary work rate that is the norm for anyone lucky enough to pull on an All Blacks shirt and a willingness to do the dirty work in defence and you have a player that is the envy of every coach in the game.
Savea has inflicted pain on the majority of his opponents but interestingly has failed to score against South Africa who, along with Wales, are the only sides yet to allow him to cross.
Will Savea tick that box when the All Blacks tackle South Africa at Ellis Park this weekend? Or will the Boks shackle him again – as they have done on the four previous occasions that he has lined up against them?
But the Boks are well aware that their old rivals are far more than a one-man team. Silencing just one of their attacking threats just inspires the others to raise their game.
It is that strength in depth and commitment to the cause that fuels their unrivalled achievements.
The performances of the likes of ‘stand-ins’ Beauden Barrett and Malakai Fekitoa at the weekend and the competition between Ben Smith and Israel Dagg that appears to have inspired both to greater heights just highlight not only the wealth of talent at Hansen’s disposal but the equally pivotal mindset within the squad and New Zealand rugby in general.
The rest of the world are desperately playing catch-up in the hope of being on a level playing field come next year’s World Cup but that is not so easy when you are chasing a moving – and improving – target.
You cannot help but be a fan of the way they play the game but South Africa will have many supporters around the world this weekend, and international coaches will be desperate for the Boks to expose a chink in the All Blacks’ armour.
Will Savea break his deadlock on scoring a try against South Africa? How do you think the Springboks should approach this weekend’s game? Can they find and expose any All Blacks weaknesses?