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