Jacques van der Westhuyzen.

All season long, Rassie Erasmus has spoken about the teams ranked three to seven (or eight or nine) all being able to beat the other on any given day; that’s how little separates them.

Teams ranked first and second, namely New Zealand and Ireland, he said, were just ahead of the rest.

Not anymore.

In fact, a close look at the results of this month’s Tests across Europe, and even going back to June, and last year, suggests the gap between the southern hemisphere teams and those in the north has closed dramatically.

While New Zealand and Ireland might still be the best two teams in the world right now, there’s not much between them – as we’ve seen in recent times.

But then the Springboks, too, beat the All Blacks this year, and it should really have been 2-0 to Erasmus’ team.

What does that say about the rankings – New Zealand, who are number one, and the Boks fifth?

Results between the tier-one teams this month have never been closer.

Just a handful of points have separated the sides, many with only one score between them, and that is what international rugby should be about.

For a few reasons, New Zealand have not been the same force this season, but that is only good for the game no one wants to go into a match or competition knowing who’ll come out on top after 80 minutes.

And this is why it is perhaps an opportunity to cut Erasmus and the Boks some slack.

Sure, they’ve only registered a little more than a 50% win rate this season, and their inconsistency during games from one week to the next is frustrating and disappointing.

But let’s also look at the positives, with one game to go.

With a new coaching team in charge, and a new style of play, the Boks have shown good progress generally throughout the season.

No team in Europe this month, except perhaps Ireland, has dominated and been in control of another as much as we sometimes expect the Boks to be whenever they play.

The Boks certainly let slip a few games this year, and they should have beaten England first up on tour and put France away by halftime (before they eventually won).

But against Scotland, they showed they had indeed learned from their two earlier games on tour. Hopefully, they can build on that performance in Edinburgh and step it up again against Wales this week.

But, even if they don’t, the Boks will have enjoyed good growth in 2018.

Erasmus knows his team are right up there, that with one or two tweaks, things can fall very nicely into place going into the World Cup year.

With a new coaching team in charge, and a new style of play, the Boks have shown good progress generally under Rassie Erasmus. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

And, he’ll also know the Boks will have as good a chance as anyone to go all the way next year.

What the results in Europe this month have done is shown that world rugby is very healthy in terms of competition, among the tier-one nations, and that all those teams will have plenty of hope when they arrive in Japan next year.

The All Blacks might still just be the favourites, with Ireland behind them, but Wales, England, South Africa, Scotland, Australia and France will all believe they have a chance. Heck, Argentina, too will be a factor.

The Boks get a lot of flak a lot of time, but the margins are so tight at the top right now; it’s perhaps time we cut them a bit of slack.

They are, after all, a team still on the rise and growing all the time. Come the World Cup, they may just hit top gear.

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