ABs wary of con­fi­dent Spring­boks

The Southland Times - - SPORT - MARC HINTON

Steve Hansen prom­ises us the metaphor­i­cal to­mor­row is go­ing to be a pos­i­tive place for his All Blacks. Tonight, and the looming resur­gent Spring­boks in Al­bany, should of­fer a tan­ta­lis­ing glimpse at that fu­ture.

More by hap­pen­stance than care­ful man­age­ment, Hansen sends out a rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced lineup for the year’s first Free­dom Cup, and Rugby Cham­pi­onship, matchup against Al­lis­ter Coet­zee’s South Africans. With his two top props, his dou­ble World Cup-win­ning No 6, his vaunted full­back and vet­eran right wing (a com­bined 337 caps, no less) all out of the mix for one rea­son or an­other, this is an All Blacks lineup with a de­cid­edly fresh tinge about it.

The start­ing props, Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala, have eight test caps be­tween them; the back three of Damian McKen­zie, Rieko Ioane and Nehe Mil­nerSkud­der can muster 20. There is no doubt­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of th­ese men, but they are light on in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence and in the for­ma­tive stages of their test ca­reers.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, that also hap­pens to be the theme of this year’s Spring­boks who are look­ing to re­build from the ashes of their 2016 an­nus hor­ri­bilis when they won just four of their 12 tests for the year, in­clud­ing get­ting smashed 41-13 (in Christchurch) and 57-15 (in Dur­ban) by the All Blacks.

They have made an ex­tremely promis­ing start to that project in 2017, sweep­ing an un­der-strength French side 3-0 in June and go­ing un­beaten through their first three matches of the Rugby Cham­pi­onship to set up this QBE Sta­dium clash as a rather piv­otal af­fair. The Boks (11pts) must se­cure their first vic­tory in New Zealand since 2009 if they are to have any hope of haul­ing in the ta­ble-top­ping All Blacks (14). There is much to play for.

So, both teams present some­what as works in progress, even if they’re still pretty im­pres­sive in their cur­rent guise. Six of the All Blacks’ start­ing XV have played 10 tests or fewer; and seven of the Spring­boks fall into that cat­e­gory. They are both lay­ing what will be im­por­tant foun­da­tions for their as­saults on the 2019 World Cup.

Hansen con­cedes that it has been an ‘‘awk­ward’’ sea­son thus far, what with the dif­fi­cul­ties against the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions, and the stop-start na­ture of their three Rugby Cham­pi­onship fix­tures. Two of those (the Wal­la­bies in Dunedin and Ar­gentina in New Ply­mouth) have in­volved ne­go­ti­at­ing their way out of a tight spot or two, which, to their credit, the All Blacks were equal to.

The coach talks about his young team sup­ping from the ‘‘big ex­pe­ri­ence pot’’ and from learn­ing the key to suc­cess is ‘‘feel­ing com­fort­able be­ing un­com­fort­able’’. But this is not his first go on the test rugby roller­coaster. He un­der­stands the process, and the dips you have to go through to ex­pe­ri­ence the ul­ti­mate highs.

He calls for pa­tience from a pub­lic a lit­tle antsy about as­pects of the All Blacks per­for­mance, con­sid­ers a stut­ter or two in year two of the cy­cle all part of the evo­lu­tion of the team, and vows: ‘‘If you’re not happy with how we’re go­ing, just be pa­tient and we’ll get there. I prom­ise you.’’

Hansen is also an­tic­i­pat­ing a dif­fer­ent sort of Spring­boks op­po­nent to the one that sur­ren­dered so meekly in 2016 – and pos­si­bly even a few more of those char­ac­ter-build­ing mo­ments that the team has faced through this cam­paign.

‘‘They’re on-song, they’ve got a lot more con­fi­dence, and that comes from win­ning. Con­fi­dence Big Jim, as they call him, has only played five tests in his brief in­ter­na­tional ca­reer. But this has to be the big­gest, in his fourth straight start. He has been chal­lenged to lead an in­ex­pe­ri­enced back three and is sure to see a lot of high ball com­ing his way. But it’s on terra firma where this guy is most po­tent. is some­thing you can’t buy. You can’t bot­tle it. If you’ve got it, it’s a big ad­van­tage to you.

‘‘They’ve also made some smart changes in some of their coach­ing ar­eas, and that re­flects on how they’re play­ing. You can see they’re a happy team, and they’re play­ing for each other. That makes them a dif­fi­cult op­po­nent be­cause they’re a tal­ented na­tion and they breed good rugby play­ers.’’

As ever the Boks chal­lenge will be phys­i­cal, at times bru­tal, and prob­a­bly pre­dictable. They’ll look to squeeze up front, at­tack in the set pieces, get the driv­ing maul go­ing, and test with that high ball. But they also have a dash of that Lions spirit, and are pre­pared to at­tack with width and through The skip­per is the heart and soul of this new gen­er­a­tion of Spring­boks and you have to think for them to have a shot, he needs to lead the charge from up front. He’s an ath­lete in the li­ne­out, a com­peti­tor in the tight and has a nice ri­valry go­ing hand when the mo­ment presents.

‘‘They look like they’re hun­gry again,’’ added skip­per Kieran Read af­ter the Cap­tain’s Run. ‘‘It comes back to that old, tra­di­tional foe for us. That’s great for the fans, and great for us as play­ers. We want to with a cer­tain Brodie Re­tal­lick. A class act. be chal­lenged, and we’ll get that to­mor­row.’’

For some young All Blacks this home fi­nale for 2017 will be their first crack at the Boks. Build­ing for to­mor­row, but lap­ping up to­day.

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