The Springboks’ mental strength, aerial ability and fitness will be tested like never before when they host a highly motivated All Blacks side at Loftus Versfeld, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It was eerily quiet at Loftus on Monday afternoon. Arguably the biggest noise of the training session originated from the stands, as one of my colleagues exclaimed at the unexpected sight of Francois Louw emerging from the tunnel. Other than that, you could hear a gum guard drop.
Come Saturday, those pale blue seats will be filled with Bok fans who have cause to believe that a big victory for the hosts is possible. It’s amazing what one win – or rather, one monumental win – can do for the supporters as well as the players’ confidence.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made this point at a press conference earlier this week. Loftus will be heaving by kickoff on Saturday, and many including Hansen himself will be watching closely to see if the New Zealanders can overcome the pressure.
How did we get here? Three or four weeks ago, there were justified concerns that the Boks might cop another big hiding at the hands of their traditional foes. A record loss to Argentina followed by a narrow yet damning defeat to Australia served to lower everyone’s expectations.
Then all was revealed. The Boks brought something new to the contest with their linespeed and gladiatorial attitude. In the final moments, the less-fancied team, the younger and less experienced team, showed greater composure and tenacity to close the game out.
It’s a story that’s captured the imagination of the greater rugby community. Reporters from both sides of the rivalry are talking about a revival. On Thursday, two prominent journalists from England were in attendance at the All Blacks press conference.
It’s been interesting to note how each team has reacted in the wake of that result. Hansen has called for a more combative showing by the All Blacks, and it’s clear that a few harsh words have been spoken to the chief decision-makers following their game-costing mistakes at the death of that recent Test.
While the All Blacks have given the Boks some credit for the result in Wellington, they haven’t given them enough. Earlier this week, Ryan Crotty suggested that the Bok defence was somewhat high risk, high reward. Hansen stated matter-of-factly that the All Blacks had ‘given’ the Boks three of their five tries.
Perhaps this could be taken as a sign of respect. The Boks caused the All Blacks problems in Wellington. The coaches have made tactical adjustments as a result, and the players have been forced to address some of their physical and mental flaws.
Meanwhile, the Boks have continued to work on their own shortcomings. And make no mistake, this South African side is not the finished article.
Erasmus has selected a side that has, in most departments, the ability to replicate the performance of three weeks ago. The selection of Louw at No 8 will lend the Boks a physicality that they lacked in the last game against the Wallabies. It will also ensure that they have the means to slow the All Blacks down at the breakdowns, and in the best-case scenario, a player who can force a turnover and launch a counter-attack.
Malcolm Marx is another player who will be key in this regard. The hooker will need to be on point with his lineout feeds and scrummaging, too. The offensive defence of the Boks, and indeed much of the game plan, will hinge on a dominant showing at the set pieces.
Erasmus has called for a sharper tactical display. The Boks lost the territorial battle in Wellington – just one stat that highlighted the magnitude of their defensive effort – and struggled to exit at times in Port Elizabeth.
When they come up against a more focused All Blacks side this week, the likes of Handré Pollard and Faf de Klerk will need to make every clearance and box kick count.
Perhaps Hansen made light of the Boks’ attacking effort in Wellington because he wants the Boks to double down in Pretoria. An expansive approach by the South Africans would certainly play into the All Blacks’ hands.
The Boks have improved a great deal in the areas of defence and fitness. The latter will be put to the test after a long season.
As we know, the All Blacks have a habit of accelerating in the second stanza. They scored three tries and 17 points against the Boks during this period in Wellington.
As was the case in the previous game, the Boks must ensure that they are ahead on the scoreboard at half-time. They must win the set-piece and breakdown battles, and they must translate all attacking opportunities into points.
The back-three combination of Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe and Aphiwe Dyantyi will have crucial roles to play in a game that could witness a lot of kicking. Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett will look to put those players – and the diminutive Kolbe in particular – under pressure from the outset.
Hansen has picked a more balanced back three for a contest that will be decided by the small margins. Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith will be favourites to win the battle in the air. In that scenario, the Boks won’t have time to reset their defence.
A strong forward performance by the Boks may nullify the threat of those kickers and ultimately those chasers. When teams have put the All Blacks or the Hurricanes pack under pressure and cut down Barrett’s space, the flyhalf has found it difficult to employ that kick-pass or tactical probe with any telling accuracy.
The All Blacks will be up for this fixture, though. Their forwards have been talking a big game all week, and the visitors are looking a lot fresher than the hosts at this stage of the season.
The Boks may surprise everyone at Loftus as they surprised us at the Cake Tin. It’s more likely that the All Blacks will find an extra gear in the latter stages and that the Boks – after producing energy-sapping performances in Wellington and Port Elizabeth – will run out of gas.
Stats and facts
o New Zealand and South Africa both successfully converted all their goal attempts last weekend (each kicking five from five), the first time either side had done so in this year’s tournament.
o The All Blacks have conceded the most turnovers in the Rugby Championship this year (91), while South Africa have won the most (39).
o New Zealand’s Ioane has scored 20 tries in just 19 Tests for the All Blacks, including four in three games against the Springboks.
o South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth has won 26 lineouts in this tournament, the most of any player and 10 more than New Zealand’s best Kieran Read (16).
o After winning the most recent fixture 36-34 in Wellington, South Africa will be gunning for back-to-back victories against New Zealand for the first time since they won three on the bounce in 2009.
o New Zealand have won their last three games against the Springboks on South African soil; they have never won four straight games playing away to South Africa.
o Since Argentina joined the competition in 2012, the All Blacks have never lost more than one match in a single edition of the Rugby Championship, winning 34 of 38 games in that period (drawn one, lost three). The last time they suffered two defeats in the tournament was during the 2011 Tri-Nations.
o New Zealand have averaged the most metres gained (650) and defenders beaten (36) per match in the Rugby Championship, while South Africa have recorded the lowest tallies in these categories (360m and 19 defenders beaten).
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Francois Louw, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Beast Mtawarira, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian Willemse.
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8. Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Ryan Crotty.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images