It is palpably unfair, but Springbok captain Jean de Villiers is painfully aware that if his team lose to the world champion All Blacks at Soccer City on Saturday then general opinion in the country will be that South African rugby is going to the dogs.
An impressive 31-8 victory last weekend over Australia lifted the mood, but has also created unfair expectations that the Springboks are favourites to beat New Zealand, who boast 939 test caps compared to South Africa’s paltry 490, and are, of course, the World Cup holders and unbeaten in 15 matches stretching back a year.
“We need to keep on evolving and, in this country, that’s usually judged by the result alone. If we put on a bad show, then we’re back where we started. We gained some momentum last weekend, and we want to build some more to take with us on the end-of-year tour,” De Villiers said on Friday.
“We played very well last weekend, but the pressure is still on us to perform. Australia had injury upon injury during that game, which definitely had an impact, so we’re not suddenly thinking we’re a great team. We’re happy with the improvement shown, but we’re very aware that we need to step up to another level this weekend.”
South Africa overwhelmed the Wallabies and did enough up front to beat the All Blacks in Dunedin in their last two outings and that has definitely added to the expectation.
But the All Blacks received plenty of flak from their fans for that performance in Dunedin and are also chasing the world record for successive wins, currently sitting on 15 with just three more needed to equal Lithuania’s mark set in 2010.
And that means Richie McCaw’s men have a point to prove and will come out firing.
“Our big goal is to be better than we were 12 months ago and if we don’t get things right tomorrow, then we’ll undo a lot of the good work we’ve done. Even though we’ve won the Rugby Championship, there’s still this big challenge ahead of playing the Springboks at home. It will be a huge test of where we are as a team,” McCaw said.
Eighthman Kieran Read was even more demanding in his analysis of what was riding on the game.
“It would really cement our number one status to win away from home against one of the top sides. If we don’t win, then a lot of what we’ve achieved goes out the window. To be number one, you can’t just win at home and it’s really important to win this weekend, there’s no bigger challenge than playing the Springboks at home,” Read said.
The one area where the hosts should definitely show an improvement as compared to their last match against the All Blacks will be in turning their possession into attacking opportunities.
With Johan Goosen making his first start at flyhalf, they scored five tries against Australia and could of scored more, thanks to an attacking edge that had been absent until then.
De Villiers will not place the hopes of the team in one man, especially one so young and still relatively unproven at the highest level, but he did confirm the 20-year-old Free Stater would be a key figure.
“Johan will be under pressure, but not a lot seems to bother him, he just gets on with the job. The bigger the event, the bigger his response seems to be. He’s a great player with unbelievable talent and a good head on his shoulders,” De Villiers said.
McCaw acknowledged Goosen’s threat.
“Goosen certainly played well last week, he got good ball and used it well so guys like Bryan Habana could benefit. He certainly backs himself and we’ve seen his ability with the Cheetahs in SuperRugby, so we’ll have to keep an eye on him and limit the amount of good ball he gets,” McCaw said.
While the All Blacks must be favourites on Saturday and will surely not deviate much from their expansive, fast-paced game that likes to get the ball wide, there is still plenty of intrigue surrounding the match, the 85th in this great rivalry between the two greatest rugby nations.
De Villiers is relishing the cat-and-mouse build-up to what should be an epic occasion on the outskirts of Soweto.
“We expect anything from the All Blacks, this mental battle, trying to outwit each other, that’s what’s great about Test match rugby. But we have an idea what we think they’re going to bring to the table,” the Springbok skipper said.
The Springboks will be tested in the scrums by the quality front row of Woodcock, Hore and Owen Franks, although Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss and Tendai Mtawarira have been in good form themselves.
We can expect an almighty tussle in the lineouts, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen recognising South Africa’s strength in that area by choosing Adam Thomson in the squad ahead of a more traditional openside flank in Sam Cane.
The All Blacks obviously have proven match-winners in McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter, but Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw were destructive forces in the ruck last weekend in Pretoria and it will be vital that they keep the New Zealand loosies in check.
The All Blacks backs are the obvious danger. The masterful Carter has the world’s most accomplished current centre pairing in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith to work with, while the attacking threat posed by the back three of Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Hosea Gear is the stuff of nightmares.
If the kicking game is not absolutely spot-on, or the chase is tardy in any way, the All Blacks will punish the Springboks.
The previous rugby Test at Soccer City proves the point. With the scores tied up at 22-22 in the final minute, Nonu broke from deep and Dagg finished a spectacular match-winning try.
The All Blacks have shown a liking for the big stage and with over 90,000 people expected in Nasrec on Saturday, they will be out to dazzle. DM
Photo: New Zealand All Blacks’ players perform a Haka before their Rugby Championship match against Argentina Los Pumas in La Plata September 29, 2012. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian
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