Sea­son swings on Spring­bok test

Rotorua Daily Post - - OUR PEOPLE - Rugby

Even af­ter wrap­ping up a third straight Rugby Cham­pi­onship ti­tle, the All Blacks face a defin­ing game for their sea­son and, maybe, for the hopes of all the oth­ers at the Rugby World Cup next year.

A se­cond straight loss to South Africa in the fi­nal round of the Rugby Cham­pi­onship to­mor­row would give op­po­nents enough ev­i­dence to con­clude that New Zealand — so dom­i­nant for the last seven years — might be vul­ner­a­ble at rugby’s show­piece next year in Ja­pan, al­beit it still be­ing a year and many more matches away.

So su­pe­rior have the All Blacks been that any ap­par­ent kinks in the ar­mour — how­ever small, how­ever rare — are pounced upon.

The lat­est kink was the 36-34 loss to the Boks in Welling­ton three weeks ago.

So, even af­ter the All Blacks re­bounded to se­cure a sixth South­ern Hemi­sphere ti­tle in seven years with few prob­lems in Ar­gentina last week­end, to­mor­row’s test against the Spring­boks will, rightly or wrongly, leave the last­ing im­pres­sion of this cham­pi­onship.

Re­venge and an All Blacks vic­tory at Lof­tus Vers­feld in Pre­to­ria will con­fine the Welling­ton game to a one-off, a hic­cup for the world cham­pi­ons, as many be­lieve it was.

An­other loss to a re­build­ing South Africa, and New Zealand will ex­pe­ri­ence self-doubt for the first time in a long time.

De­spite New Zealand los­ing for the first time in a year, the first time in 10 games, and only the se­cond time at home in nine years, coach Steve Hansen said there’s no more pres­sure this week­end than nor­mal for the top-ranked team and one of sport’s most suc­cess­ful fran­chises.

“Life for the All Blacks . . . it’s not about any­thing other than hav­ing to win,” Hansen said on ar­rival in South Africa.

“Ex­pec­ta­tions are that we win ev­ery test match, and if we win them we’ve got to win them well, so noth­ing will change for us.”

Life has changed im­mea­sur­ably for the Spring­boks and coach Rassie Eras­mus, who were com­ing off back-to-back losses and pretty poor per­for­mances when they stunned the All Blacks.

South Africa’s sea­son turned on the win. Eben Etze­beth, Frans Mal­herbe, Mal­colm Marx, Steven Kit­shoff. Re­serves: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Vin­cent Koch, RG Sny­man, Sikhum­buzo Not­she, Em­brose Papier, El­ton Jan­tjies, Damian Willemse.

New Zealand: Ben Smith, Waisake Na­holo, Jack Good­hue, Sonny Bill Wil­liams, Rieko Ioane, Beau­den Bar­rett, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (cap­tain), Sam Cane, Shan­non Frizell, Scott Bar­rett, Sam White­lock, Owen Franks, Codie Tay­lor, Karl Tu’inukuafe. Re­serves: Nathan Har­ris, Tim Perry, Ofa Tu­un­gafasi, Pa­trick Tuip­u­lotu, Ardie Savea, TJ Per­e­nara, Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty.

Fewer than half the tick­ets for this week­end’s re­turn test had sold be­fore that game.

In the days af­ter South Africa’s win in New Zealand, the 50,000-seat Lof­tus Vers­feld Sta­dium sold out.

There’s also re­newed be­lief among the Spring­boks that their most trea­sured ri­valry, against New Zealand, is still alive de­spite South African rugby slip­ping so low so re­cently that the All Blacks won 57-0 a year ago.

“The All Blacks are go­ing to come at us with ev­ery­thing they’ve got, they’re go­ing to try and prove a point,” South Africa flanker Pi­eter-Steph du Toit said.

“That said, we’ve got a point to prove as well.”

The All Blacks saved some of their big guns for South Africa. Cap­tain Kieran Read, prop Owen Franks and half­back Aaron Smith all re­turned to the start­ing lineup hav­ing been rested in Ar­gentina, restor­ing nearly 300 tests of ex­pe­ri­ence to their lineup.

Hansen has been com­pli­men­tary of South Africa all week, as he of­ten is, but the mind­set of his play­ers was ques­tioned in the af­ter­math of Welling­ton when they were crit­i­cised by some for be­ing over­con­fi­dent.

Bren­dan Ven­ter, the former South Africa as­sis­tant coach and World Cup win­ner with the Spring­boks in 1995, ar­gued that line in a re­cent column.

“The mo­ment a team dis­re­spects the op­po­si­tion they open them­selves up to be beaten, which is what hap­pened in Welling­ton,” Ven­ter wrote. ” . . .

The All Black coach­ing staff would have told the play­ers to re­spect the Spring­boks, but deep down they didn’t.”

All Blacks cen­tre Ryan Crotty de­nied that, say­ing “Nah, we al­ways re­spect them.”

PHOTO / AP

Af­ter beat­ing both the All Blacks and Wal­la­bies, Pi­eter-Steph du Toit and the Spring­boks ap­proach to­mor­row’s test with con­fi­dence.

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