Off-colour Ki­wis give Boks a gap

Seem­ingly in­vin­ci­ble just a year ago, the All Blacks have hit a wob­ble, boost­ing the South Africans’ hopes

Mail & Guardian - - Sport - Luke Feltham

South Africa’s games against the All Blacks last year were merely a few of the col­li­sions the Spring­boks en­dured dur­ing the train­wreck that was their 2016. For their ri­vals, the 41-13 no con­test and the 57-15 Dur­ban ham­mer­ing were brief side at­trac­tions en route to grab­bing the Rugby Cham­pi­onship with a per­fect record.

The sil­ver­ware and sub­se­quent 18-Test win­ning streak seemed to al­lay any fears that rugby’s best would have to nav­i­gate tran­si­tional waters. New Zealand had sav­agely de­fended the World Cup the year be­fore, leav­ing it clear who the dom­i­nant force in the world was.

But the tour­na­ment’s con­clu­sion also saw the end of some in­flu­en­tial in­ter­na­tional ca­reers. Per­haps most no­table, 2015 World Rugby Player of the Year Dan Carter called it a day. Af­ter the dis­ap­point­ment of miss­ing the pre­vi­ous fi­nal on home soil be­cause of in­jury, the Cru­saders leg­end forced vic­tory home with cru­cial drop goals, atyp­i­cal of that All Blacks team, against the Spring­boks in the semis and Aus­tralia in the fi­nal.

Fol­low­ing him out the door was his cap­tain, Richie McCaw. Be­tween the two, they have claimed the sport’s top in­di­vid­ual prize six times. Add in icon Ma’a Nonu, whose 40m try in that Wal­la­bies game is for­ever etched in mem­ory, and Kiwi dom­i­nance, at least on paper, didn’t ap­pear so undis­puted.

But Steve Hansen’s men didn’t like that nar­ra­tive and went about dis­man­tling all put be­fore them. At the cen­tre of much of the glory was star fly half Beau­den Bar­rett, who de­cided to put to­gether his own World Player of the Year run. Af­ter guid­ing the Hur­ri­canes to a com­mand­ing Su­per Rugby ti­tle in 2016, he then set about mak­ing the No 10 jer­sey firmly his own. Carter’s empty boots, if not filled, were at the very least com­pen­sated for.

But things haven’t quite gone to plan this year. The All Blacks keep win­ning for the most part, but that un­touch­able aura has been largely eroded. A 1-1 tie against the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Li­ons in their own back­yard was a warn­ing sign.

That sig­nal would have be­come a full-blown siren af­ter the All Blacks’ per­for­mance against Ar­gentina last Satur­day. The Pu­mas led un­til the 60th minute in New Ply­mouth, only losing a grip on the game af­ter Vivea Fi­fita’s stun­ning de­but try. De­void of ideas for much of the game, the Ki­wis strug­gled to turn pos­ses­sion into sus­tained pres­sure, con­ced­ing 21 turnovers in the process.

Much of the cre­ativ­ity drain can be at­trib­uted to Bar­rett him­self, whose off-colour 2017, by his stan­dards, has co­in­cided with his team’s. On Satur­day he failed to con­trol the game in any mean­ing­ful way. His at­tempts to ma­nip­u­late the tempo fell flat and his few at­tempted er­rand stabs at the ball in­evitably failed.

Not help­ing his cause was Damian Mcken­zie at full-back, who found great dif­fi­culty in con­tain­ing the high ball. The diminutive 22-yearold has found him­self in line to put to­gether a string of in­ter­na­tional caps af­ter an im­pres­sive few sea­sons with the Chiefs in Su­per Rugby. An in­jury to Beau­den’s brother, Jordie Bar­rett, and a Ben Smith sab­bat­i­cal have only strength­ened his chances.

He’s a mag­i­cal player, ca­pa­ble of burst­ing through the op­po­si­tion on a dime — he set up Nehe Mil­nerSkud­der’s try and grabbed one him­self against the Pu­mas. But if he can’t find more com­po­sure un­der sus­tained op­po­si­tion bomb­ing he will likely find him­self la­belled as more of a li­a­bil­ity than an as­set.

One sug­ges­tion do­ing the rounds is to bring in Lima Sopoaga at No 10. The High­landers’ man brought with him a smooth com­po­sure when he came on at the Yar­row Sta­dium, not to men­tion a re­li­able goal-kick­ing boot. Bar­rett could then move to full­back, where greater free­dom could po­ten­tially help him to re­dis­cover his form.

Hansen is not sold on the idea but he did in­di­cate it would prob­a­bly come to fruition mid-game this week­end. “Do we want to have both of them in at the same time? No, not to start, we won’t. Hav­ing them both on the field at the end of the game is a real pos­si­bil­ity be­cause it’s hap­pened most of the time.”

For the time be­ing at least, the All Blacks seem to be putting all their hopes on Bar­rett re­turn­ing to con­sis­tent great­ness, in turn equally el­e­vat­ing the team.

“We saw how Ar­gentina did it, and Beaudy caught the brunt of it,” lock Brodie Re­tal­lick re­flected. “But it’s not re­ally Beaudy’s fault. It’s what the boys are do­ing around him. We need to be bet­ter at com­mu­ni­cat­ing the space to give Beaudy the op­tions.”

It’s clear that this is a team in flux, if not quite in tran­si­tion. The ad­di­tion of skil­ful play­ers such as McKen­zie and Fi­fita has the po­ten­tial for a big pay-off but for now they will have ques­tion marks over them.

This opens up beau­ti­fully for the Boks, who are surely head­ing into the game with a load more con­fi­dence than they have had in re­cent times. New Zealand emerged vic­to­ri­ous from the en­counter nine times in their past 10 meet­ings, with their last home de­feat com­ing in 2009. Al­lis­ter Coet­zee will be hop­ing to pounce on any self-doubt, in the back row or oth­er­wise. His side still face the best team in the world but iden­tity is­sues give the green and gold their best op­por­tu­nity in re­cent mem­ory.

Af­ter a gritty dis­play in the 23-23 draw in Perth, New Zealand cer­tainly won’t be un­der­es­ti­mat­ing any­one.

“We have seen the last cou­ple of weeks how phys­i­cal they have been, es­pe­cially up front. As al­ways, they’re big boys and they like to come at you,” said Re­tal­lick, look­ing ahead to the clash be­tween two teams sep­a­rated by three points on the log.

“They’ll be com­ing here with a bit of anger and, with the skill and phys­i­cal­ity they’re play­ing with, I’m sure it’s go­ing to be a good spec­ta­cle.”

Beat­able: The usu­ally be­yond-reach All Blacks ap­pear to be go­ing through a tran­si­tional pe­riod which will make their up­com­ing matches that much more in­ter­est­ing. Photo: Nigel Marple/Reuters

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