MELBOURNE, Oct 9 (Reuters) - The Rugby Championship wrapped up on Saturday in the same way it opened, with a rampaging All Blacks team humbling fallen rivals in their own back yard and a frustrated Argentina lamenting their inability to win the games they should.
The All Blacks’ record 57-15 humiliation of South Africa at King’s Park notched up their 17th successive win, matching the record amongst top-tier nations and snatching the title back from Australia who won last year’s abridged tournament.
The nine-try rout, laden with explosive line-breaks and outrageous off-loads by Steve Hansen’s men, was a fitting way for the world champions to sign off, having opened the southern hemisphere championship with a 42-8 obliteration of the Wallabies at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium.
Both matches left once-competitive opponents appearing decidedly second-rate, while propelling the All Blacks into a different stratosphere despite the retirements of a number of stalwarts after last year’s World Cup triumph.
“We planned for knowing we were going to lose a lot of test caps (to retirement),” Hansen told reporters at King’s Park.
“I can’t explain why the others haven’t kicked on but I just know that is the reason why we have managed to stay where we were, or even got a little bit better.”
In blanking the three southern hemisphere rivals, all World Cup semi-finalists, the All Blacks’ tour of Europe is unlikely to check fears that their dominance may be harmful for the game in turning off rugby fans.
Australia is ground zero for those concerns, with vast tracts of empty seats at their home internationals.
The Wallabies were swept 3-0 by England in June then had back-to-back thrashings by the All Blacks that undid much of the good will earned from last year’s World Cup final appearance.
Michael Cheika’s side finished a distant second in the Rugby Championship standings after holding off the Pumas 33-21 at Twickenham despite barely getting their hands on the ball in the second half.
It was a creditable finale but the tournament overall continued a sobering year for Wallabies fans, who had entered the season believing they could challenge the world champions.
Instead they were humbled by former coach Eddie Jones’s England and their seismic defeats to the All Blacks have forced Cheika to throw out his plans and begin again.
They now face Hansen’s side, who are bidding to seal the record for the longest winning streak by a tier one nation, in the final Bledisloe Cup match of the season on Oct. 22.
While they have ended two previous attempts by the All Blacks -- in 2012 with an 18-18 draw in Brisbane after 16 successive wins and then with a 12-12 draw in Sydney in 2014 after 17 victories -- they appear ill-equipped to repeat the feat again at Eden Park, where New Zealand have not lost since defeat to France in 1994.
Argentina captured a first win over South Africa on home soil but bowed out ruing another campaign of missed opportunities.
They lost their opener to the Springboks 30-23, crumbling in the last 10 minutes and failed to make the Wallabies pay at Twickenham despite dominating the play against opponents reduced to 14 men twice in the first half.
“We still have some way to go to being a mature team,” said Pumas coach Daniel Hourcade.
It was a sentiment Allister Coetzee may well have shared as his side crashed in the second half at King’s Park.
The twice World Cup champions’ staid tactics were blown to pieces by the All Blacks ball-in-hand game and the Springboks have plenty of soul-searching ahead of their European tour.
Coetzee said he had little choice but to be patient with his players.
“If there are players out there who can strengthen the squad we will certainly have a look at that,” he said. “But I can guarantee you that there are not many out there.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury