There’s some­thing about the Boks that al­ways brings out our best

Weekend Herald - - RUGBY - Liam Napier com­ment

South Africa and New Zealand are two very dif­fer­ent worlds, for­ever in­ter­twined by our shared love of rugby.

Braai, beer, beauty and brawn are other mu­tual in­ter­ests, but it is the oval ball game where pas­sion is per­son­i­fied.

This is why in the oft mo­not­o­nous world of test match rugby, the Spring­boks al­ways man­age to stir some­thing within.

The All Blacks ac­cept they have fallen short of typ­i­cally su­per­hu­man ex­pec­ta­tions this sea­son as they at­tempt to con­tin­u­ally evolve their game. Steve Hansen la­belled this an “awk­ward” pe­riod with in­juries and change con­stantly test­ing his young squad.

“We’ll get there — I prom­ise you,” Hansen said, re­as­sur­ingly.

But, per­haps, sub­con­sciously at least, com­pla­cency has also been an is­sue in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship thus far.

It would hardly be sur­pris­ing. The level of op­po­si­tion was never go­ing to be as high as the pin­na­cle Bri­tish and Ir­ish Li­ons se­ries. While the black jersey is held in the high­est re­gard, All Blacks are hu­man, too. Some form of come­down was in­evitable.

After a near per­fect first half against the Wal­la­bies in Syd­ney, maybe the All Blacks were guilty of think­ing it would all be that easy in a tour­na­ment they strolled through last sea­son and clinched four of the past five years.

Much of their per­for­mance against Aus­tralia in Dunedin sug­gested they were not as fo­cused as they should have been from the out­set. Again, in New Ply­mouth against the Pu­mas when the All Blacks made seven start­ing changes, their lack of pa­tience on at­tack for large pe­ri­ods re­flected a team not will­ing to earn the right to turn pres­sure into points.

Which brings us to the Spring­boks. They, too, are in re­build mode with one eye firmly on the 2019 World Cup. Their re­vival this year has been more dili­gent than daunt­ing. But the his­tory and tra­di­tion at­tached to th­ese fix­tures alone should be enough to evoke a sig­nif­i­cant lift from the All Blacks. By all ac­counts, an edge in ag­gres­sion has been ev­i­dent at train­ing this week.

“It’s one of those awe­some test matches that you can hope­fully be a part of,” All Blacks lock Sam White­lock said. “If you go back through all the his­tory be­tween South Africa and New Zealand, some of those games peo­ple talk about 10, 20, 30 years on.”

Re­spect flows be­tween th­ese proud na­tions but, after a dread­ful 2016, the onus is on the Boks to reignite this ri­valry. How good would it be to wit­ness any­thing close to the suc­ces­sive doozies at El­lis Park in 2014/ 15, or even a re­peat of the colos­sal col­li­sions from the in­cred­i­bly tense 20- 18 World Cup semi­fi­nal in London?

Yet the size of the Boks’ task can­not be un­der­stated. They last won in New Zealand eight years ago and will field a team, cap­tained by pow­er­house 25- year- old lock Eben Etze­beth, with 468 fewer caps than the All Blacks. Los­ing start­ing half­back Ross Cronje to ill­ness won’t help, and rookie Chee­tahs wing Ray­mond Rhule can ex­pect a dif­fi­cult night mark­ing Rieko Ioane.

Etze­beth, to his credit, grasps the need to front.

“Earlier this week a New Zealand guy came to me and told me ‘ forget about the Wal­la­bies; forget about the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Li­ons, the Spring­boks and All Blacks is prob­a­bly the big­gest ri­valry in rugby’. I think the same,” he said. “Over the years you look back at World Cups — they are all mas­sive games. We know they are our big­gest com­pe­ti­tion and, hope­fully, they know we are their big­gest com­pe­ti­tion.”

Re­view­ing the tape from last week, the Boks will see the Pu­mas tar­geted the All Blacks at the break­down which dis­rupted flow and negated their lethal speed.

If the Boks are in the fight come the fi­nal quar­ter, they will con­front a wor­ry­ing trend. Since 2012, the All Blacks have won the sec­ond half by a com­bined 186- 59 — a telling in­di­ca­tor of the in­flu­ence from the bench.

Re­tire­ments and in­juries have quelled the qual­ity of the All Blacks’ re­place­ments some­what but this pe­riod re­mains are rel­e­vant as ever.

“You can never al­low a lapse in con­cen­tra­tion, es­pe­cially be­fore and after half­time,” Boks coach Al­lis­ter Coet­zee noted. “That’s where against Ar­gentina the All Blacks hit back. The boys are fit enough to go for 80 min­utes. We’re look­ing for a 23- man ef­fort and we’ve had a fan­tas­tic week.”

No ex­cuses, then. Here’s hop­ing this ri­valry gets the con­test it so de­serves.

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