ABs v Boks: 4 solo scraps

Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)
Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Although you might hear the odd protest from north of the equator whenever Lions tours are assembled, “All Blacks v Springboks” is widely regarded as rugby’s ultimate international showdown.

GALLERY: Four key match-ups

As these old foes go into battle at Eden Park on Saturday (09:35 SA time) as unbeaten, almost certainly only contenders for the Castle Rugby Championship title this year, all sorts of spicy individual duels on the night are worthy of scrutiny.

In pinpointing just four, I have gone for some blindingly obvious ones, but also one or two that may seem potentially less decisive, in advance, yet could prove critical if things are desperately tight ...

Julian Savea v Willie le Roux

Is this game between the world’s No 1 and No 2-ranked outfits going to be swung by a lone moment of genius or explosive athletic prowess? If so, then the source could very well be one of these two X-factor characters, invitingly up against each other on the All Black left and Springbok right wing respectively. Powerful, 108kg Savea is the likelier, destructive “bullet” if he suddenly breaks a couple of tackles or is unleashed into space, but the more subtle, silkier Le Roux – renowned for his peripheral vision – is just as capable of turning nothing into ... well, something. The Stellenbosch product’s defence will be put to an acid test if Savea heads toward him at speed, but his own advantage is a stronger ability to put a team-mate in his proximity away with a deft grubber or unorthodox little off-load.

Ma’a Nonu v Jean de Villiers

Yes, just to the inside of each man lurks another pivotal one-on-one as Messrs Carter and Steyn lock horns yet again in flyhalf combat, with the multitude of responsibilities that chore so often entails. But the inside centre channel is a big ‘un, too, and two seasoned No 12s of the Test cauldron eyeball each other. Both are major figures in every respect in their backlines, with 32-year-old, 103kg De Villiers thriving consistently in own-game terms on the responsibilities of captaincy. As for the moving tree trunk who is Nonu, he is a year younger and just a couple of kilograms more muscular, so you could say they more or less neutralise each other – and they must know each others’ strengths and minor vulnerabilities so well through both Test and Super Rugby. Psst, if one of the “twelves” is to poach an alert, vital intercept try, I’m tipping De Villiers by a whisker ...

Kieran Read v Duane Vermeulen

Is this perhaps the premier match-up of the lot? A neutral, Australian rugby writer for a major paper I read in the wake of the Brisbane game last weekend was just one to passionately believe so and I’m tempted to concur. Let’s not kid ourselves as South Africans: Read, the Crusaders icon and acting All Blacks skipper on Saturday, is just about as complete a No 8 as you will see on the international stage. He matches his excellence at all the “basics” in the position with a constant knack of featuring forcefully in ball-in-hand initiatives; he is certainly no personal stranger to the try-line. Meanwhile, though, the uncompromising Vermeulen – by the way, same height (1.93m), same age (27) – offers just a tad more grunt physically and is making serious strides now at this level: he was my own Bok standout against the Wallabies last Saturday. If this game is decided in the trenches and in inches painstakingly ground out, he is not incapable of matching, or even eclipsing, Read for usefulness on the day.

Sam Whitelock v Flip van der Merwe

Still no ideal No 5, where mobility and banker status as a lineout factor tend to be hallowed attributes, Van der Merwe is a strategic pick in the slot at present by Bok coach Heyneke Meyer as part of his plan for his pack to collectively out-muscle their counterparts. But will the behemoth be exposed in the middle of the lineout by known spring-heeled master of that department Whitelock? At least the Boks have Juandre Kruger lurking on the bench, in case things are going notably pear-shaped there. Still, it needs to be remembered that a certain Eben Etzebeth, aided at the back by the likes of Vermeulen, is capable of ensuring at least parity in the skies anyway. There’s another challenge for Van der Merwe though: can he keep his questionable discipline? He has a bit of a reputation for conceding daft penalties so yes, there’s some risk associated with this selection. But it could also pay tidy dividends in bigger-picture terms in the boiler room.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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