Rugby Championship Review: Springboks closing gap, Wallabies wobbling

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Cheika: Not just a game, it's personal (0:47)

Michael Cheika says the Wallabies' second half performance against Argentina showed the personal importance the Test held for his side. (0:47)

The Rugby Championship is over for another year with the All Blacks cementing their place as the top Southern Hemisphere side with emphatic displays across the competition. However, South Africa -- and even Argentina -- showed that the world is catching up to the No.1 side.

The Springboks pulled off the performance of the tournament when they downed the All Blacks in Wellington, while the Pumas were no easy beats in Nelson and pushed every side they crossed. But the Wallabies were more like Wobblies throughout the competition, only giving fans a glimpse of their best in their come-from-behind win in Salta.

Read on for our team-by-team tournament review.

Argentina

Argentina have propped up The Rugby Championship ladder again; no surprise there given they've finished last every year bar one since they joined the competition in 2012. Yet this was their most successful campaign to date, with multiple victories for the first time -- against South Africa in Mendoza, by a record margin, and the Wallabies on the Gold Coast in Australia - and they could (should) have featured so much more. They led the Boks 14-10 at halftime in their opening match of the tournament, in Durban, and somehow lost their last to Australia by 11 points having thrown away a 24-point advantage at the break. They also produced a rousing performance to score three tries in pushing the All Blacks in Nelson.

Key Takeaway: They have talent and have recorded much better results this year under the coaching of Mario Ledesma, of that there is little doubt (they were 0-6 last year). There has been a genuine step up from being an awkward opponent for the top teams, to becoming a side with the capability to challenge, if not beat, the very best side at home or away. Yet there is still something confusing about them: are they punching above their weight? playing at their level? or under-delivering?

Area for Development: They have shown a disappointing tendency to go MIA for long spells of a game - witness their fades in the second half against the Boks in Durban and Mendoza, where they led 32-7 before conceding 12 unanswered points that would have been more but for South African mistakes, and most particularly at home to the Wallabies. They also failed to show up in the first half at home to the All Blacks. It strikes as being a simple lack of concentration and discipline to be switched on for 80 minutes, rather than anything else, but this must be their "Must Do Better" KPI if they are to progress.

Breakout Player: Emiliano Bofelli (Fullback): Bofelli was dynamite through his second Rugby Championship, providing a strong threat in broken-field running - making more carries than any other player (71) for 374 metres and three tries. His stats also feature 23 defenders beaten and six offloads, and he can only get better with further experience given he has only 20 caps.

What's Next: The Pumas head to Europe for end-of-year fixtures against Ireland (Nov. 10), France (Nov. 17), Scotland (Nov. 24) and the Barbarians (Dec. 1), and they will have realistic hopes of winning three or four matches. They'll certainly consider they must win at least two matches if they are to maintain their momentum from The Rugby Championship, as they had won just three of 24 Tests (against Japan, Georgia and Italy) before they defeated the Springboks in Mendoza.

Rugby World Cup: The Pumas are drawn alongside England, France, the United States and Tonga, and the two-time Rugby World Cup semifinalists will hold justifiable ambitions of qualifying for the knockout stages. For all the promise and improvement they have shown under Ledesma this year, however, there is a feeling they still don't know "how to win" - or go for the jugular when it is exposed for sharp fangs. They are also over-reliant on Nicolas Sanchez, as Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias carries nothing like the same threat, while they lack attacking leadership around the pivot; there is a sense those around Sanchez must step up if the Pumas are to take "the next step".

Australia

Despite finishing the tournament on a high, the Wallabies - and their fans - will be hugely disappointed with the performances they put in across their six matches. Getting hammered twice by the All Blacks may not have been a surprise, but their limp performances against the Springboks at home and in Durban, as well as their shocking loss to the Pumas on the Gold Coast, has put their fans offside in a big way. Many people are still baying for Michael Cheika's sacking. While there was plenty to be ashamed of, there were still moments of gold that gave everyone a sense of what this team can truly accomplish.

Key Takeaway: The talent is there, as we saw in moments across the tournament, but whether this side can put those moments together for 80 minutes is questionable. The Wallabies' win over the Pumas was a perfect example of how bad this side can be, while it also showed just how good they could be. Although Australia had the least amount of tries across the tournament (16), they were second in clean breaks (77), carries (733) and third in metres carried (2,453), this is indicative of the amount of possession they garnered, but their inability to finish. If they finally put all the pieces together they'll be stiff competition for the best in the world.

Area for Development: It would be easy to say the Wallabies need to develop everywhere, but as they showed in Salta, they have the defence and they have the attack, it's their set piece that has proven to be the Achilles' heel. Sanzar stats show the Wallabies won just 78 percent of their lineouts -- the worst in the tournament -- while they won 91 percent of their scrums. It is nearly impossible to win big games when your set piece continues to crumble. While the Wallabies scrum saw improvement as the tournament progressed, and they searched for their starting front row, their lineout went from bad some weeks to just abysmal in others. This must be at the top of their list of improvements ahead of the World Cup.

Breakout Player: Taniela Tupou (prop): In his first Rugby Championship, Tupou made a place for himself in the Wallabies line-up with impressive work off the bench and as a starter. Only young, Tupou still has plenty of work to do, but his scrummaging has been impressive and will only continue to develop. One of many changes to the starting front row, the 22-year-old was a key part of why the Wallabies enjoyed a 100 percent scrum win rate against the Pumas in Salta and the Springboks in Durban. An honourable mention must also go to debutant Jack Maddocks who scored his first Test try against the All Blacks, and Tolu Latu who continues to make his presence felt whenever he takes to the field.

What's Next: The pressure is on for the Wallabies straight away as they head to Japan to take on the All Blacks in the final Bledisloe Cup clash on October 27. It doesn't get any easier once they land in Europe though, as they take on Wales (Nov.11), Italy (Nov. 18) and England (Nov. 25). With the World Cup just around the corner this could give Australia a major boost, or conversely, it could spell the end of Michael Cheika and his men.

Rugby World Cup: In a similar pool to World Cup 2015, the Wallabies will be preparing for a tough fight when they take on Wales and Fiji in Japan. Their efforts this year would have left pool opponents Wales and Fiji licking their lips at the idea of taking on a weak Australia side. Usually expected to come out of the pool games unscathed, the Wallabies will face a tough time from the get go with Fiji preparing to shock the world in the opening weekend. Michael Cheika exceeded expectations in 2015 when he took the Wallabies to the final, but whether he'll even be there in 2019 is yet to be determined.

New Zealand

The All Blacks were shocked when the Springboks pounced on their sub-par performance in Wellington, falling to their first defeat since October 2017. But despite the one loss, New Zealand continued to prove why they're the world's best, taking out the tournament for a third consecutive year. Smashing the Wallabies proved a good warm-up in the opening two matches as they managed to withstand a bombardment from the Pumas in Round 3 and take home an easy victory. Again in Argentina they were on song and cemented top spot, while in Pretoria they faced a tough task but produced a Houdini act to win a classic.

Key Takeaway: The All Blacks are the best side in the world, we already know that much, but after they were pushed by the Pumas in Nelson and the Springboks served up a shock in Wellington, we now know they're not as invincible as everyone believed. While a New Zealand newspaper claimed the World Cup might as well be in All Blacks' hands already, perhaps a three-peat isn't as certain as previously believed.

Area for Development: Is there anything to develop? Maybe another Haka? But seriously, the All Blacks have been the best in the world for years for several reasons. They do the simple things with precision, while they do the unbelievable regularly. But this season we haven't witnessed a truly polished All Blacks side. New Zealand led the stats table for everything: tries, carries, clean breaks, metres made, lineouts won, tackles made - the list goes on. But they were also the top of the list for turnovers conceded. Handling errors, poor passes, and poor execution plagued the All Blacks, but even on a bad day they've proven they are still mighty hard to beat.

Breakout Player: Richie Mou'unga (fly-half): Currently sitting behind Beauden Barrett for the starting fly-half role, Mo'unga made an impression in his starting debut against the Pumas and continued to make an impact off the bench throughout the tournament. A 100 percent winning stat, Mo'unga brings an extra spark to the All Blacks backline and cemented his place in the squad ahead of next year's World Cup. Whether he can dethrone Barrett is yet to be seen, but World Rugby's best player will certainly be feeling the pressure.

What's Next: After a short break, the All Blacks will be back in action in Japan where they take on the Wallabies in the third and final Bledisloe of the season. While the Cup is safely back in New Zealand hands, they'll be wary of a frustrated Wallabies side, and won't want to suffer a similar defeat to last October. Their true test will come on their Northern Tour however, when they take on England (Nov. 11) and Ireland (Nov. 18) giving fans a good glimpse of how close the gap has closed, before they head to Italy (Nov. 25) to finish the year.

Rugby World Cup: Despite only falling to one loss in the tournament, the All Blacks won't be the certainties of claiming a third straight World Cup as they have been previously. After hammering South Africa 57-0 in Albany just last year, it looked certain the All Blacks would have an easy ride through the World Cup pool stage, with their opening clash against the Springboks. But after suffering their first loss to the Springboks on home turf since 2009, and again being pushed in Pretoria, coming through just their first match of the World Cup unscathed is no certainty.

South Africa

While the Springboks finished 10 points behind the All Blacks in the final Rugby Championship standings, they will take a lot of positives out of this year's competition.

South Africa's two matches against New Zealand ended in an aggregate score of 66-66. They were the only team to beat the All Blacks, and should have actually done so twice if they had kept their composure in the last quarter at Loftus Versfeld.

After an easy win against Argentina in Durban, the Boks went down to the Pumas in Mendoza, before losing a scrappy battle against the Wallabies in Brisbane. Nobody gave the Boks a chance going into their match against the world champions in Wellington, but they produced one of the gutsiest displays in the history of the game to prevail against a team that gave them a 57-0 hiding in the corresponding fixture the year before.

The Boks then beat the Wallabies in Port Elizabeth, and for 70 minutes it looked they would go back-to-back against the All Blacks for the first time since 2009. It didn't quite go as planned for the Boks at Loftus Versfeld, but they look they are on the verge of becoming a force again.

Key Takeaway: The Springboks have rediscovered their mongrel, especially in defence. After looking a bit flat in Argentina and Australia, they hammered New Zealand in Wellington in the physical stakes and forced them to play without any sort of momentum by gang-tackling them backwards. The Springboks' defence has been quite passive and reactive over the last few years, but they have incorporated a new rush defence to go with their physicality. However, it's not quite the finished product yet, as the Boks are still susceptible to conceding the odd try in the wider channels.

Area for Development: The Springboks scored some wonderful tries, especially in Wellington, but their attack is not quite there yet. The South Africans had the All Blacks on the ropes in the first half in Pretoria, as they enjoyed more than two-thirds of the possession and territory. However, they could only manage a 6-6 scoreline at the break, because they didn't create enough clear-cut chances to capitalise. The Springboks have a few classy outside backs coming through, but they need to be given the ball in space to show their quality.

Breakout Player: Aphiwe Dyantyi (wing): Dyantyi's dream start to his international career continued in the Rugby Championship after he finished as the joint-top try scorer. The Springboks' left wing crossed the line five times, while he also made the joint-second most clean breaks in the competition. But his work rate has also been very good, as he chases hard and makes the odd smother tackle in the wide areas. This kid looks like he could be the heir to the great Bryan Habana's throne.

What's Next: The Springboks should take a lot of confidence into their November tour of the United Kingdom and France. The Boks start off their tour with a Test against England on November 3. England will be looking for revenge after losing their June series in South Africa 2-1. The Boks then play France the following week, before an encounter against the ever-improving Scotland. The Springboks then travel to Wales to face the Dragons, who have dominated the South Africans in their backyard over the last few years.

Rugby World Cup: The matches against the All Blacks have given the Springboks some belief heading into the next year's World Cup. Before this year, nobody would have given the Springboks a chance of going beyond the quarterfinal stage, but such has been the team's improvement under Rassie Erasmus that they will now be considered genuine title contenders. The Boks still have a lot of room for improvement, but they have found that belief they can once more compete against the best.