At the start of 2018 there was a very clear pecking order in the Southern Hemisphere.
It went in descending order: New Zealand atop the pile, with Australia a distant second, South Africa even further behind, and Argentina bringing up the rear.
Nice and neat with the world champions at the summit and the chasing pack’s position in the table accurately reflected where they were in the world game.
However given the results of the Rugby Championship this weekend the form book has been thrown out the window.
While New Zealand are still the side to beat in world rugby, all of a sudden they look almost human and there has been somewhat of a changing of the guard with the teams below them.
On Saturday South Africa did what many would have thought to have been impossible, and beat the All Blacks in what was only their fourth defeat in 43 test matches (including the Lions).
To put that in context, in the corresponding fixture last year New Zealand put them to the sword with a 57-0 drubbing, in what many perceived to be an all-time low for a proud rugby nation.
While many would feel that New Zealand let the ‘Boks off the hook by gifting them two tries with intercepted passes, Beauden Barrett missing four conversions from six attempts, and Damian Mc Kenzie dropping the ball at the death with the line seemingly at his mercy, but the South Africa are definitely on an upward trajectory.
Since the aforementioned poor showing in the 2017 rugby championship and the equally bad Northern Hemisphere tour that followed which saw them were hammered by Ireland and beaten by Wales and with their only consolation being wins over a hapless Italian side and a French outfit possibly at their lowest ebb in a decade.
However, since then they’ve parted ways with coach Alistair Cotzee, and have replaced him with former Munster head coach Rassie Erasmus, who immediately started the rebuilding process.
He appointed backrower Siya Kolisi as captain – making him the first black man to skipper the international side – and also scrapped South Africa’s overseas selection policy, which previously meant only players based abroad with 30+ caps could be deemed eligible for selection.
The lifting of the rule has seen players like Faf De Klerk – who looks like he could challenge Conor Murray for the title of being the world’s best scrum half – Francois Louw, and more come back into the fold.
This victory isn’t a flash in the pan either, as they comprehensively beat England on their summer tour, even turning over a 24-3 deficit in the first Test to win 42-39.
Despite a reality check against the Pumas, if they continue to gel, they could very well be dark horses for the World Cup.
While neutrals will no doubt be happy to see a resurgent South Africa break New Zealand’s dominance of Southern Hemisphere rugby, Ireland fans should greet it with a degree of caution.
If Ireland top our group, which we should definitely be aiming to do we will play the runners up of the group containing South Africa and New Zealand, which will more than likely be the Springboks, as in recent editions of the World Cup teams in the All Blacks group tend to more or less give them a walkover and save their full hand for later in the competition.
Argentina are another side who have torn up the form book in this year’s competition.
Last autumn they were soundly beaten by England and Ireland with their only victory of their trip coming against Conor O’Shea’s Italy. The Pumas then endured a dreadful summer series, being soundly beaten by Wales twice and then Scotland.
They carried this dreadful form into the rugby championship going down to the Springboks 34-21 in what was new head coach and Puma legend Mario Ledesma’s first match at the helm.
However that game seemed to jolt them to life as a week later in the reverse fixture the “Argies” stunned the Boks and claimed a 32-19 win at home to end an 11 game championship losing streak in what was only their third ever win over South Africa.
Since then they’ve backed it up with a spirited display against the Steve Hansen’s All Blacks and a showed their mettle by holding on to beat Australia by four points at the weekend.
Argentina are another team who’ve been hampered by their policy of selecting players based in Argentina only, however this has been relaxed somewhat this year and international based players are being selected, albeit somewhat reluctantly it would appear.
Again their resurgence spells bad news for Northern Hemisphere sides in the build up to the World Cup, namely England and France, who have been drawn with Argentina in the so called “pool of death”.
While there is a lot of rugby to go under the proverbial bridge between now and the World Cup which kicks off in almost exactly a years-time, it’s looking likely that supposedly weaker Southern Hemisphere sides will have a big say in the composition of the last four of the tournament.