Rugby Championship: Five things we learnt from the tournament including the All Blacks are back

Jared Wright
Rugby Championship All Blacks Scott Barrett, Wallabies coach Eddie Jones and the Springboks' Duane Vermeulen.

All Blacks Scott Barrett, Wallabies coach Eddie Jones and the Springboks' Duane Vermeulen.

Following the conclusion of the 2023 Rugby Championship, we pick out five things we have learnt from the action which saw the All Blacks claiming yet another title ahead of the Springboks, Los Pumas and Wallabies.

New Zealand completed their four-peat for this Rugby World Cup cycle, including the 2020 Tri Nations, claiming victories in Mendoza, Auckland and Melbourne.

Meanwhile, South Africa defeated Australia and Argentina to claim second place, with the Wallabies propping up the table.

Here’s what we’ve learnt from the action in the southern hemisphere competition as the focus shifts to the Rugby World Cup warm-ups and the tournament in France.

The All Blacks are back!

After a troublesome start to 2022, New Zealand Rugby made changes to the All Blacks coaching ticket, and those alterations have paid dividends consistently since.

They ended that year on a six-game unbeaten run despite hiccups against Japan, where they narrowly won 38-31 and a 25-all draw to England.

However, Ian Foster’s charges came flying out the blocks in 2023, taking their unbeaten run to nine games after thrashing Argentina 41-12 in Mendoza, shocking the Springboks 35-20 in Auckland and comprehensively defeating the Wallabies 38-7 in Melbourne.

Their performances during the Rugby Championship resembled the All Blacks of old as they ruthlessly capitalised on opportunities in the opposition’s half and scored some scintillating tries.

Once again, they have the forward pack that can box with the best that Test rugby has to offer, while genuine superstars are producing in the big matches again too.

The side have even returned to full black kits and togs for all the players, ensuring the aura is still alive while performing the ‘Kapa O Pango’ haka, usually reserved for only their biggest games, in every Test this year. Quite simply, they mean business in 2023, and they have made that crystal clear.

The Rugby World Cup opener between hosts France and the All Blacks just got a whole lot spicier.

Argentina will be tough to beat at the World Cup

For just the second time since their inclusion in 2012, Argentina are not propping up the Rugby Championship standings with all four teams involved. They last achieved this in 2015 when the Springboks finished bottom of the pile.

While it was far from a vintage campaign from the Pumas, it was a statement one as they pushed the Wallabies and Springboks to the brink in their latter two games after a slow start against the All Blacks.

They edged the Wallabies in their second Test despite going behind with just four minutes to play and almost stunned the Springboks at home after missed shots at goal came back to haunt them.

What Michael Cheika has achieved with this team since taking over last year is truly remarkable. Having assisted the side for their historic win over the All Blacks in 2020, he led them to a stellar away win in New Zealand last year and backed that up by defeating England at Twickenham in December.

While Argentina haven’t quite gotten into the habit of winning regularly, Cheika’s charges are incredibly tough to beat. While Pumas sides of old had a soft underbelly and would drop their standards after a card or a try against the run of play, the Chieka Pumas do not.

Argentina are on the ‘easier’ side of the Rugby World Cup draw – they still have a challenging pool with England, Japan, Samoa and Chile – but do not be surprised if they manage to beat them all and top their group.

Knives out for Eddie Jones as overhaul stalling

Eddie Jones’ honeymoon period is officially ended as doubts over whether the move for him to replace Dave Rennie gather momentum.

Fans welcomed his initial homecoming with open arms, and while Jones has been excellent with pushing narratives and creating a buzz around the games, it’s the performances on the pitch that really matter to the fans, and so far, all that matters is his 0-3 record.

Jones spoke of the Wallabies’ ‘Smash and Grab’ plan for the World Cup, but it has stalled at Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup.

One has to wonder if the overhaul job was more extensive than Jones initially planned or if it really is just some more minor tweaks and time in the saddle that will set the Wallabies right. Only time will tell, but the pressure is already mounting on the head coach.

Don’t write off the Boks in 2023

The Springboks kicked off 2023 with an impressive victory over the Wallabies, with a side missing several first-choice players.

That first performance caught the eye, but what followed lulled the hype around Jacques Nienaber’s side as their fiercest rivals comfortably beat them before just getting over the line against Argentina.

At times the Boks looked mentally fatigued and lacked accuracy, particularly on attack, but don’t expect that to be standard this year.

Those issues can be sorted by the time the Boks touch down in France as they can sharpen their structures and reset.

The side have certainly missed the likes of Handre Pollard and Siya Kolisi, not only based on their ability but their leadership too, while we can expect them to start selecting a more settled side from the team to face Wales.

With two world-class front-rows to call upon and the brilliance of the likes of Lukhanyo Am, Eben Etzebeth, Cheslin Kolbe, Willie le Roux and many others, you cannot right off the current world champions.

Form is temporary; class is permanent

This Rugby Championship campaign proved the old cliche accurate as several veteran players produced standout performances despite being written off by many.

Before the first ball was kicked in the Championship, many had written off Beauden Barrett after an underwhelming Super Rugby Pacific campaign. Many believed that Damian McKenzie had nudged ahead of him in the pecking order and that he and Richie Mo’unga could not work in an axis together. Barrett quickly silenced many of his doubters in the opener against Argentina before driving the statement home with stellar shifts against the Springboks and Wallabies.

Similarly, there were doubts over an ‘ageing’ Aaron Smith in his final year as an All Black, but the 34-year-old was sublime throughout the competition producing three vintage performances. To complete the hat-trick of All Blacks centurions who were somewhat written off, Brodie Retallick looked at his brutal best again.

It wasn’t just the trio of All Blacks though, as Springboks’ hardman Duane Vermeulen made an emphatic statement that he still has ‘it’ ahead of his final World Cup campaign. The veteran number eight had a string of performances that were not of his standard last year but started 2023 superbly with two brilliant 80-minute performances and a strong cameo off the bench against the All Blacks.

Similarly, the same was said about the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit, in 2022. The blindside flanker was back playing some of his best rugby again this year and looks to be trending in the right direction to hit his 2019 form at the World Cup again.

READ MORE: Rugby Championship Team of the Tournament: All Blacks dominate with 12 players selected