Upcoming All Blacks match key for Boks ahead of World Cup
The Springboks have recorded just four wins against the All Blacks in New Zealand since the dawn of the professional era 27 years ago.
Ask any Springbok, past or present, and they will tell you that a Test against the All Blacks remains the ultimate challenge for a South African rugby player.
Some list their first Test appearance as a career highlight, but many describe their first match against New Zealand as a “second debut”. The prolific winger Breyton Paulse once stated that the players didn’t consider themselves true Springboks until they had faced the All Blacks.
This year, that rivalry and quest for bragging rights may play out over three games. After tackling the All Blacks in Auckland on 15 July, the Boks will face New Zealand in a World Cup warm-up (if a Test against the All Blacks could ever be considered something as mundane as a warm-up) at Twickenham on 25 August.
A third meeting in the World Cup quarterfinals or later in the tournament may follow – depending on their respective paths if both qualify for the knockout stages.
Auckland is key chapter in trilogy
The first match in Auckland will be especially significant for a number of reasons.
The Boks will be gunning for a result that sets them on course for a Rugby Championship title.
Another positive outcome will extend their unbeaten run in New Zealand to three matches. That would represent a turning point for a rivalry that spans more than a century.
The Boks have recorded just four wins against the All Blacks in New Zealand since the dawn of the professional era in 1996. They had to wait nine long years before claiming that fourth victory in 2018.
It’s a notoriously difficult place to tour and yet recent wins for South Africa, Ireland and Argentina have proved that the men in black are far from invincible on New Zealand soil.
In Auckland, however, the All Blacks still possess some of the old aura. The Boks have not won a game against the All Blacks in New Zealand’s largest city since 1937.
Heyneke Meyer’s charges appeared well placed to break the curse in 2013, but were severely compromised after referee Romain Poite sent off hooker Bismarck du Plessis and reduced the visitors to 14 men.
World Rugby later admitted that Poite had got the call wrong, but that admission did nothing to change the result.
Perhaps the Boks will view the coming game as the perfect opportunity to end the drought. It will be staged at Mount Smart Stadium and not at the iconic Eden Park – a graveyard for so many visiting teams.
What’s more, the All Blacks have been in decline for the past four or five years and they will be returning from a bruising encounter against Argentina in Mendoza in round one of the 2023 Rugby Championship. Ian Foster’s side may be there for the taking.
Sending the best to New Zealand
The Bok coaches have highlighted the importance of the first Rugby Championship fixture against Australia in Pretoria. This is fair given the South Africans’ proud history at Loftus Versfeld and their quest to travel to New Zealand with log points in the bag.
The game in Auckland, however, has to be their priority. If they succeed in the New Zealand stronghold, they will improve their chances of winning the Rugby Championship, and land a psychological blow ahead of their subsequent meetings against the All Blacks in Europe later this year.
The Bok coaches signalled their intentions this past week.
The SA Rugby press release that revealed the side to face Australia in the Rugby Championship opener included information about the 14-man advance party travelling to New Zealand.
As expected, the latter contingent features most of the players who started the big Tests in 2021 and 2022. Having departed for New Zealand on 4 and 5 July, these players will have nine days to acclimatise to the local conditions and time zone before the clash at Mount Smart Stadium.
Some of the players selected to face the Wallabies will have to fly across 10 time zones, adapt to the local conditions in a short space of time and then start their second Test in the space of seven days.
Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Willie le Roux are just some of the individuals who may need to play catch-up.
Damian Willemse, who was named on the bench for the game against Australia, may be pushed into the starting side at No 10 against New Zealand.
Psychological points on offer
This Bok side has overcome this particular challenge before. Back in 2019, they thrashed the Wallabies 35–17 in Johannesburg before securing a 16-16 draw against the All Blacks in Wellington.
Those results set them up for a Rugby Championship title victory, which they sealed after a 46–13 win against Argentina in Salta.
The coaches and players have reason to believe that the 2019 selection policy will yield similar results in the coming weeks. They will also know that there’s something more at stake in this 2023 season.
If the Boks tick the box in New Zealand, and realise their Rugby Championship title ambitions thereafter, the stage will be set for an almighty rematch at Twickenham in August.
In that scenario, the All Blacks will be desperate to claw a result back before the World Cup, but the Boks may be equally determined to go “2–0 up” before a possible meeting with the old foe in the quarterfinals of RWC 2023.
It’s highly unlikely that the Boks will finish the 2023 season unbeaten. The demands of the schedule necessitate a fair amount of squad rotation, and this may compromise their quest to win consistently. Though they will be gunning for top spot in their World Cup pool, there is a chance that they will fall to Ireland, who are ranked No 1 in the world.
But, as was the case in 2019, a loss in the pool stage won’t necessarily dent South Africa’s World Cup title chances. If they finish Pool B in second place, they will face the winner of Pool A, which should be France or New Zealand.
And if they go into a playoff against the All Blacks, having won the two previous clashes in Auckland and London, they will fancy their chances of advancing to the decider and becoming the first South African team to win back-to-back World Cups. DM
This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.