Rugby’s biggest rivalry
ABs take on the Boks
A warm spring sun shone on the All Blacks yesterday in Albany as they put their finishing touches on their preparations for the challenge against the old foe tonight and there is a sense of renewal too in the make- up of a side which, given their recent form, could be either ripe for a difficult evening or ready to cut loose.
With t wo new props in Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala, a relatively inexperienced back three in Nehe Milner- Skudder, Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane, the Springboks will feel they have their best chance in a long time to secure a rare away victory over the All Blacks and yet there is a strong sense of calmness and confidence among Steve Hansen’s men.
At least, that was the impression given by skipper Kieran Read yesterday and coach Hansen in his final press conference of the week when he said his side weren’t the finished product but they were heading in the right direction and that the challenges along the way would make them a far better side, with the 2019 World Cup the ultimate goal.
So far in the Rugby Championship the All Blacks have veered from the sublime to the not so great. The victories over the Wallabies were uneven to say the least and Argentina provided difficult moments in New Plymouth last weekend, but all three tests were won and the Bledisloe Cup is locked away for another year.
Given the injuries to props Joe Moody and Owen Franks and wing Israel Dagg, Hansen might settle for the consistently good rather than occasional flashes of outrageous brilliance, but his men will be given free rein to play with width and ambition at QBE Stadium.
The bright sun yesterday caused captain Read to misjudge a kick- off — a rare sight these days given his increasing expertise from the re- starts, an ability which helped get his side home against the Wallabies in Dunedin.
The Boks, who have spoken during the week of Read’s leadership and ability to feature in the big moments for his team, will be wary, too, of the captain’s skill under the high ball and once off the training pitch he spoke of his confidence the All Blacks were steadily building.
“We’ve improved as a team; I think we’re certainly on an upward trend,” Read said. “The amount of guys who have had ex- posure is great — it builds us nicely for the future and I think it’s important we finish our year at home well.” Tests against Argentina in Buenos Aires and South Africa in Cape Town remain for the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship before they play Australia in the third Bledi sloe Cup test in Brisbane in October and travel to Europe to play France, Scotland and Wales in November. The key for the inexperienced players, Read said, was being aware that they don’t have to try too hard.
“For the new guys it’s about them nailing their little bit, whether that’s in the scrum or getting where they need to be on attack,” he said. “They don’t need to try too hard — that’s been the message this week for those guys. They’ve been great, they’ve come in really excited and with plenty of enthusiasm.”
Asked about Hames, in his first test start, and Laulala, who has looked good against the Wallabies and Pumas, Read said: “The two guys who are in there at the moment scrum well together. They work well at the Chiefs and look it’s not a prop thing, it’s the whole eight in the scrum so we’ve got to put the power through. We’ve got some good experience with Wyatt to come off the bench so he’ll be a calming influence when he comes on.”
The Boks will now be without halfback Ross Cronje, who has a stomach bug, with Francois Hougaard starting and Rudy Paige moving to the reserves bench.
“They are guys who have had another year of experience,” Read said of a South African team who have arrived in New Zealand with plenty of confidence after an unbeaten start to the Rugby Championship. “Certainly they look like they’re pretty hungry, they’re not shirking their responsibilities, so I think it comes back to the old traditional foe for us which is exciting. It’s great for us as players and great for the fans. We want to be challenged and we’ll certainly get that tomorrow.”
South Africa will target Kieran Read.