RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP DECIDER
A Test for the ages – as Etzebeth honours his father on Boks’ Auckland All Blacks mission
Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash between the All Blacks and Springboks at Mount Smart Stadium is a 2023 Rugby Championship decider with a lot riding on the outcome.
The Springboks seldom need extra motivation when they play against the All Blacks – the history, rivalry and quality of the contest ensures that every time they meet, the Test generally goes into the column marked “great”.
But at the unfamiliar 25,000 capacity Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland’s industrial south-eastern suburbs, the world champions will have something extra to play for. The memory of Eben Etzebeth’s father.
The death of Harry Etzebeth this week was a cruel blow to the family. He had been ill for several months, and Eben’s recent shoulder injury had allowed him to spend more time with his father than normally would’ve been the case.
Even so, being almost as far as you can be from South Africa when your father dies, is hard. But Etzebeth has made the decision to play.
By all accounts, he wanted to play, which indicates that he knew when stepping on the plane to New Zealand more than a week ago, that he may have seen his father for the last time.
“We have prepared like we always do for Test matches, and with Eben’s loss, our first thought was to support Eben,” assistant coach Mzwandile Stick said.
“We supported whatever decision he took. He wants to play, he wants to honour his father that way, and under those circumstances you couldn’t ask for a bigger game to do it in. We are a family at the Springboks and we support each other. We’ll do everything in our power to support him and play the best we can.”
All Black skipper Sam Cane expressed sympathy for his opposite number, but made it clear condolences would be suspended for 80 minutes.
“It’s obviously a pretty tough week for him and his family, and as a team we send our condolences to the Etzebeth family,” said Cane. “It must be pretty tough for him being on the other side of the world. I suppose we will see each other at the coin toss, and then do battle on the field.”
Channelling emotion positively
It will undoubtedly be emotional, but the Boks are experienced enough these days to channel that emotion positively. And they’ll need to because this is easily going to be their toughest pre-World Cup challenge.
There is also the small matter of 86 years since a Springbok side won in Auckland, when the great 1937 team triumphed. Records are made to be broken. This would be a good one to alter.
In 2008, the Boks ended an 87-year losing record in Dunedin, so maybe the 2023 vintage can do the same.
New Zealand always veers between brilliant and very good, especially at home, and the 2023 team is no different. They dismantled the Pumas in Mendoza last week, and have recalled several big names such as flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and lock Brodie Retallick to face the Boks. This is not Mbombela anymore.
After losing 26-10 in the first of two Tests in South Africa in 2022, the All Blacks bounced back to win 35-23 at Ellis Park a week later. That was down to some poor selections by the Boks, and a highly improved performance by the All Blacks.
“I love these Test matches against the Boks,” Cane said. “Our forward pack does. They’re games that are often won up front. There have been some epic battles over the years, and everything is pointing to another one tomorrow.
“You can see by the bench they’ve picked they believe it will be a game won up front. We know their DNA and how they like to play – scrum, maul, penalty, set piece … we’re in for a big challenge. Last time we played them (at Ellis Park) we did really well in those areas and we’d like to think we’ve improved since then.”
Cane is right. At Ellis Park, his side showed they could live with the physicality of the Boks after being overpowered the week prior.
The question now is, will the All Blacks match the Boks’ power game again and can they do it against the monstrous Bok bench – the bomb squad – for a full 80 minutes?
Having Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen, RG Snyman, Vincent Koch, Thomas du Toit and Malcolm Marx joining the second half of the party, has got to be a worrying prospect for any team.
But at home, it’s odds on that Ian Foster’s men can match the Boks physically. As a consequence, the Boks, while needing to win the battle for momentum on the gain line, will also have to continue to show their growing finesse on attack.
Last’s weeks’ 43-12 win over the Wallabies at Loftus showed how varied the Boks’ game has become, but there is new personnel this week. Last week’s halfbacks Manie Libbok and Cobus Reinach were picked to build tempo and ask unexpected questions of the Wallabies.
There is a sense that even though this week’s pair – Faf de Klerk and Damian Willemse – have great natural attacking flair, the approach will be more prosaic.
Soften up the All Blacks
Ideally the Boks want to soften up the All Blacks, play for territory and use their set piece to build pressure. Later, if that plan has succeeded, then the likes of Grant Williams and Libbok can stretch the game.
Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi are great finishers, and Lukhanyo Am showed touches of his class last week. Willie le Roux and Damian de Allende are understatedly classy. There is a lot to like about this Bok team.
But coming the other way, the All Blacks have game-breakers everywhere and if their pack provides something close to parity, the Boks will have a much tougher day.
The Bok defence has been susceptible to being exposed wide if the outside-in system breaks down. A lot will depend on whether the All Blacks are quick and daring enough to push passes in the face of the claustrophobic defence.
And will the Boks’ goal-kicking with a combination of Willemse, Kolbe and De Klerk be accurate enough to keep the scoreboard ticking over?
The emotion, the contrasting styles, brilliant players and 102 years of history, have set this up as a Test match for the ages. The Rugby Championship outcome is riding on it, as is World Cup momentum. Strap up. DM
15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Jordie Barrett, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Sam Cane (captain), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Ethan de Groot.
Reserves: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Tupou Vaa’i, 20 Dalton Papali’i, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Braydon Ennor, 23 Caleb Clarke.
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (captain), 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Reserves: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Duane Vermeulen, 22 Grant Williams, 23 Manie Libbok.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Kick-off: 9.05am (SA time).