Century-worth of attitude on display when Springboks and All Blacks clash
On Saturday the Springboks and the All Blacks clash for the 100th time in exactly 100 years in the unlikely setting of Townsville in Queensland.
Since hostilities first commenced on the rugby field between South Africa and New Zealand, the matches have often been among the most brutal and brilliant of any era in the sport.
Saturday’s 100th meeting, which could decide the winner of the 2021 Rugby Championship, should be no different because, once again, the stakes are as high as they have ever been. These are both skilled and excellent teams, but in contrasting ways. That has always been the appeal and it remains true today.
The Boks are world champions and recent series winners against the British & Irish Lions. But they are on a two-match losing streak following back-to-back defeats to Australia and they’ve just relinquished the No 1 rankings to the All Blacks.
New Zealand only need a point to capture the Rugby Championship crown, but that is not their focus. The All Blacks always believe they are the world’s best team and, for the most part, their record supports that inherent attitude. But to prove it, beating the world champions is crucial, so they won’t be lacking in motivation.
Throw in the historical 100th match exactly 100 years after they first clashed in Dunedin, it has all the ingredients to be a classic. A wounded Boks squad, backed into a corner after two poor performances, against a rebuilding All Black team that is explosive and potentially excellent, but not yet great, is a salivating prospect.
“This has got a bit of a legacy moment feel about it — 100 Tests and 100 years, it certainly makes it special, along with the fact we haven’t played South Africa for a couple of years,” All Black coach Ian Foster said when naming his team.
“We are all aware of the history and legacy of this match and respect that, but the only way we can do justice to that is to prepare well and focus on what we have to do.”
Both sides have downplayed the historical nature of the contest because quite frankly, these two sides don’t need milestones to motivate them for the clash.
Former Bok skipper John Smit described that you have two debuts as a Springbok — your first Test and your first Test against the All Blacks. Most New Zealanders feel similarly, although in the professional era the All Blacks have dominated the fixture.
This match carries the same weight of expectation it always has but it comes with an asterisk because of the circumstances it is being played under.
The Boks have been in various bio-bubbles since 2 July — almost 13 weeks — and must be suffering some mental fatigue. It’s not a natural existence, especially when they have to also perform at a high level every week.
Coach Jacques Nienaber and his team have refused to use the bio-bubble as an excuse but their lethargic performances against the Wallabies were an indication of a team that looked mentally fatigued.
The mental toll of coming from 1-0 down in the series to beat the Lions, followed by two hard Rugby Championship encounters against Argentina in the space of five weekends must have been massive. Prop Thomas du Toit and lock Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg both left the squad for personal reasons. It’s not an easy existence for them at the moment.
By contrast, the All Blacks have only spent the last three weeks in a bubble and will have less psychological fatigue going into the game. But if anything can inject excitement into the Bok camp after such a long slog, it has to be the prospect of a clash against their fiercest rivals.
Small errors, big consequences
Nienaber has rejigged his side slightly for this meeting, with Kwagga Smith starting in the No 7 jersey. That ostensibly makes him a blindside flank, but he doesn’t resemble the usual big ball-carrying units such as Pieter-Steph du Toit that South Africa employ in that position.
That selection was partly forced in Nienaber because Jasper Wiese’s disciplinary hearing was delayed by 24 hours. But even so, Smith was the one player who displayed admirable energy in the final quarter of last week’s 30-17 defeat to the Wallabies.
It’s that energy that can lift a team and it must be from the first whistle. The Boks don’t want to be playing catch-up against the All Blacks.
Lood de Jager’s return at lock is a set-piece, as well as a defensive, boost. His presence was missed last week and if the Boks can force more lineouts and scrums, they could make life difficult for the Kiwis.
The backline is unchanged but with Elton Jantjies’ return to the bench, along with that of Frans Steyn, Nienaber has tipped his hat to experience. The game might need to be chased in the final quarter, or it might need to be shut down. Those two have the skills and experience to do both.
Last week there were no glaring calamities, but the Boks made dozens of small errors. Missed tackles, knocks-ons, poor decisions and silly penalties amounted to a substandard performance.
They must eliminate those mistakes. No performance will ever be error-free but the Boks were their own worst enemies last week. If they are more disciplined in every department of the game, they will be difficult to beat.
New Zealand will start as favourites because they have been rampant this season. But within each of their games they have shown some frailties, especially in terms of decision-making yet have managed to get away with them.
The Boks, if they can rekindle the form and hard-nosed edge that defeated the Lions, will pose tougher questions to the All Blacks than they have been asked all season.
Hopefully, that is the case because the All Black response will be critical and insightful. They have so much individual talent, especially in rejuvenated flyhalf Beauden Barrett and centre Rieko Ioane, who has found a natural home in the midfield.
The return of hooker Codie Taylor and lock Brodie Retallick to the pack adds to its power. There are few weak links in this All Black lineup, although lack of experience on the bench in some key areas such as loose forward, hooker and prop, could be a factor.
But they are up against the world champions and until 14 days ago, the most on-form team in the world. The Boks need to remind themselves of that because these clashes are all about attitude. One hundred years of it, in fact. DM
15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 David Havili, 11 George Bridge, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Luke Jacobson, 7 Ardie Savea (captain), 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ethan Blackadder, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Quinn Tupaea.
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Trevor Nyakane
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn.