WELLINGTON — The All Blacks’ ability to seal the Rugby Championship with two rounds remaining highlights the burgeoning gap between the world champions and the rest of the sides, though they are not prepared to let their final games become footnotes.
Their 41-13 bonus-point victory over the Springboks in Christchurch on Saturday gave them their 15th successive win stretching to 2015 and the title was confirmed when Australia beat Argentina 36-20 in Perth later.
The All Blacks, playing in a fast-paced and high-skill style, have the maximum 20 points from the four games, with Australia second on nine points. SA have six and Argentina five points.
“It’s very satisfying,” assistant coach Ian Foster said on Sunday. “I guess wrapping up the championship is more of a consequence of us playing some really good rugby and the way some of the other results have gone. Certainly pleasing to have it done after four rounds, but in reality it doesn’t change much, does it?
“We’ve still got two games on the road, our expectations are high and I’m sure the public’s are too so we’ve got to keep going.”
The All Blacks travel to Buenos Aires on Friday for their match against Argentina on October 1 before they finish the competition against the Springboks in Durban a week later.
If they win those two matches, they would extend their winning run to 17 consecutive matches, equalling a world record among top-tier nations that was achieved by the Springboks from 1997-98 and the All Blacks from 1965-69 and from 2013-14.
The challenge of facing fired-up Pumas and Springboks sides in their own backyards aside, coach Steve Hansen has already said he is likely to shake up his selections to ensure players do not burn out before the end-of-year tour.
Completing the Rugby Championship schedule undefeated would also mean the third Bledisloe Cup clash with Australia at Eden Park on October 22 would take on some actual meaning as the potential record breaker.
The Wallabies have halted two lengthy winning runs by the All Blacks in recent years, stopping their streak at 16 games in 2012 with an 18-18 draw.
They stopped the 2014 streak at 17 games with a 12-12 draw.
Foster said the history was one of the factors driving the team, though making sure they improved each week was far more important as they build towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup. “It sounds a little bit more interesting,” he said of the record before adding their overall focus was more long-term. “It’s about challenging ourselves to be the best we can be.”