ABs wary of confident Springboks
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.