If Saturday’s clash at Ellis Park is even half as good as the spectacle this fixture produced last year, it’ll still rank as one of the best Test matches of the year.
The 2013 Rugby Championship decider was one for the ages as the Springboks and All Blacks went at it hammer and tongs, producing a nine-try humdinger that will be remember as one of the greatest Tests of all time.
Those 80 minutes in the heart of Jo’burg underlined their status as the two best teams in the world, but also left little doubt as to who was top the pile as New Zealand’s superior skills, fitness and self belief came to the fore in the final quarter.
This time around the championship title may already have been settled but interest levels are hardly diminished, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, and most obviously, a clash between the teams ranked 1 and 2 in the world, in any sport, is always going to be titanic. This is where the benchmark is set.
Secondly, South Africa’s desire, no, their need to the beat the All Blacks is bordering on obsessional. The rivalry between these nations has always been special but the scales have been tipped in the Kiwis’ favour for so long now that another defeat – on home soil – is sure to leave a scar.
The Boks’ burning ambition to prove to themselves that they can beat the best is all the more significant when it is seen in the perspective of their ultimate goal: If they want to have their hands on a certain gold cup at Twickenham on October 31 next year, they’ll need to get past the All Blacks along the way.
The fact that this year – unlike twelve months ago – South Africa do not need to score four tries is massively significant. As our guest columnist pointed out during the week, this time all that counts is victory and overcoming that psychological barrier that South Africa have built up against New Zealand over the last few years.
This time the hosts are unlikely to fall into the trap of getting too loose, too soon. Indeed, as was the case in Wellington last month, we’re unlikely to see another 65-point affair, even if the last three games between these sides at Ellis Park have seen an average of 72 points scored.
Not that the Boks will turn it into a slugfest. No, Heyneke Meyer’s quotes this week illustrated the mind shift and the evolution that has taken place in the national camp during the Meyer era.
“We won’t be able to beat the All Blacks by thinking we can bully them into submission,” said Meyer.
“Gone are the days that Springbok teams can dominate throughout with their forwards and physically overpower teams. The other countries have caught up with us when it comes to physical power.”
Over the last year, the Boks have certainly narrowed the gap in at least one of the three areas mentioned above. Last week’s win over the Wallabies showed that three years into conditioning coach Bazil Carzis’s four-year plan, the men in green and gold are no longer being left behind. (Point in case: Prop Trevor Nyakane returned to the Bok fold in June this year, and has lost 12kg since).
Of the other two, the self-belief factor is a work in progress but SA’s skill levels are still some way behind NZ’s. Just compare the way Israel Dagg and Ben Smith combined for two of their team’s tries in La Plata to how the Boks botched a handful of chances at Newlands.
As such, South Africa’s best chances for victory still depend on the graft of the their big men in the trenches and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen knows it.
“For me it will come down to the tight forwards,” said Hansen, disagreeing with Meyer, who said the key battle was between the back rows.
“If you get tight forward dominance, then you create the platform for your loose-forwards to play off. If you don’t, then no matter how good your loose-forwards are you may struggle in the absence of momentum.”
With those comments in mind, the loss of Brodie Retallick is massive.
With the Boks riding high on confidence and the All Blacks a little travel wary after a trip to Argentina, the gap between these teams will have narrow to almost nothing in the last seven days. But at this level, tiny margins can still have a massive impact.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: Although rated by many as the best hooker in the world, Bismarck du Plessis has not really enjoyed his most recent outings against the All Blacks. Sent off in controversial circumstances in Auckland last year and having produced an erratic display in Wellington a few weeks ago, Du Plessis has a point or two to prove. Having started the last three Tests on the bench behind the in-form Adriaan Strauss, he’ll have steam blowing out of his ears at kick off. A man of monstrous strength, that kind of energy can be a dangerous thing if not channeled correctly. Either way, anyone who gets in his way is going to get hurt.
For New Zealand: The scorer of the try that put New Zealand back in front, for good, at Ellis Park last year, Beauden Barrett starts in the black number ten jersey for just the third time and has a great chance to show what he can do under the pressure of a big occasion. South Africa have given the fewest penalties away of any team in the competition so Barrett cannot afford to waste goal-kicking opportunities as he did in Napier against los Pumas. In the thin air of the Highveld, tactical kicking becomes even more prominent and there too he will be Tested. A big performance could help him climb above Aaron Cruden in the AB hierarchy.
Head-to-head: Every battle, from 15 to 1, is set to be a cracker but the clash between thecentre combinations will be interesting. Both sides have veterans marshaling affairs in Conrad Smith and Jean de Villiers while youngsters Malakai Fekitoa and Jan Serfontein – both playing in newish roles – are key line breakers for their respective teams. With both sides eager to play with volume, how the ball moves in, and through, the midfield will be hugely influential.
2014: New Zealand won 14-10 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2014: New Zealand won 37-28 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg
2013: New Zealand won 32-16 at Eden Park, Auckand
2012: New Zealand won 32-16 at Soccer City, Johannesburg
2012: New Zealand won 21-11 at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
2011: South Africa won 18-5 at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
2011: New Zealand won 40-7 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2010: New Zealand won 29-22 at FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
2010: New Zealand won 31-17 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2010: New Zealand won 32-12 at Eden Park, Auckland
2009: South Africa won 32-29 at Rugby Park, Hamilton
2009: South Africa won 31-19 at Absa Stadium, Durban
2009: South Africa won 28-19 at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
2008: New Zealand won 19-0 at Newlands
2008: South Africa won 30-28 at Carisbrook, Dunedin
2008: New Zealand won 19-8 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handrè Pollard, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Duane Vermeulen/Schalk Burger, 7 Tebo Mohoje, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Bakkies Botha, 20 Schalk Burger/Warren Whiteley, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 JP Pietersen.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Ryan Crotty
Date: Saturday, 4 October
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa
Kick-off: 17:05 local (15:05 GMT, 04:05 NZDT)
Weather:22°C. Partly Cloudy
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant referees: Pascal Gauzere; JP Doyle
TMO: Graham Hughes
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