Pretoria - There will be many South Africans fearful of their team taking a step backwards in Saturday’s eagerly awaited Rugby Championship finale against the All Blacks, but in actual fact they may have much more to gain than to lose from the Loftus Versfeld clash, SuperSport.com reports.
If everyone in the rugby world had brought into the theory that what we saw in Wellington three weeks ago was a Springbok redemption that suddenly propels them into prime spot on the world pecking order, then there would indeed be a huge risk of a Bok regression from that position of strength.
But that hasn’t been the case. While a significant moment in the growth of the current Bok team in terms of finding self-belief, and All Black coach Steve Hansen is right to expect the team his men will face on Saturday to be more confident, there has also been a healthy dose of realism. Both to the Bok capabilities and to the standing of the Kiwis.
Passionate and brave though the Boks were in the first round fixture, it is also nonetheless true that the All Blacks conspired against themselves. The big question we should be asking ahead of this game is one related to what impact the Westpac Stadium defeat will have on the All Black approach.
There were elements of arrogance creeping into the All Black game before Wellington, and it did look like their quest to take the game to a new level, and to a hitherto unseen tempo and aesthetic, was perhaps leading them to disrespect some fundamentals of what is needed to win rugby matches.
The All Blacks are used to scoring big wins, and they’ve done the Boks by 50 points twice in the last 24 months. So when they scored two early tries in a dominant opening 15 minutes three weeks ago, they got a little carried away about what they were chasing. It’s natural to want to keep trying to exceed the previous benchmark that is set.
Certainly it is hard to imagine the All Blacks again gifting the Boks two tries and you’d expect defence to be another area of the Kiwi game that they’d have worked hard on shoring up. A more tempered, more controlled All Black team is what we are likely to see at Loftus, a team that shows far greater respect to possession and patience.
That could spell trouble for the Boks but provided it doesn’t veer back towards the disastrously one-sided non-contests we saw at Kings Park in October 2016 and Albany in September 2017, defeat doesn’t necessarily have to equal a train smash for Siya Kolisi’s team.
For here is the thing, the reason why this game might actually just be more important for New Zealand than it is for the South Africans - by winning in Wellington the Boks have crossed a frontier and proven to themselves than on a given day they can beat the best team on the planet anywhere. In other words, they’ve already done it.
They’ve won the away game against the All Blacks. They did so in freaky circumstances without any ball. They scored five tries with hardly any ball. They did it in one of the New Zealand rugby strongholds.
It would be a backward step if there was a big reversal on Wellington, such as the one that Peter de Villiers’ Boks experienced in 2008 when they went from victory in Dunedin to a 19-0 whitewash in Cape Town a few weeks later. But defeat in a fairly closely contested game, which is what should be expected on the Highveld from this era of Boks, won’t be a quantum step backwards.
At least it wouldn’t be near the disaster that another loss would be for an All Black team that is still regarded, and rightly so, by their most recent conquerors as the best team on the planet.
They may have already clinched the Rugby Championship trophy, but one of the consequences of the complete dominance the Kiwis have enjoyed over southern hemisphere rivals for some time now is that it creates a ridiculous level of expectation. An expectation that would decree two consecutive losses to the Boks, the team they posted more than 100 points against in the space of just 160 minutes not that long ago, is an unmitigated disaster and a sign that indeed some tinkering might be necessary with long established team selections.
Hansen said after Wellington that his team would learn, so did the captain Kieran Read. So they have to show at Loftus that they have done that or even the more level-headed All Black fans might just start losing their sense of perspective and start running towards rugby’s equivalent of an air-raid shelter.
What if Beauden Barrett does miss his kicks again in a high pressure game? Wellington wasn’t the first time he did that. He also did it last year in the icon series against the British and Irish Lions. It wouldn’t be stretching it to suggest that it was his poor place-kicking, coupled with Sonny Bill Williams’ flash of poor discipline, that enabled the British and Irish Lions to leave New Zealand having drawn the series.
Barrett is unquestionably the world’s finest flyhalf, but more place-kicking failures from him will have to prompt more serious thought on finding a way of covering him by including another kicker somewhere else in the All Black team. That won’t be an ideal scenario for Hansen or for the All Blacks.
And what if the All Blacks again struggle when confronted with a quickly advancing Bok rush defensive system, if they again make mistakes, if they again give points away on a platter when the pressure is applied?
The All Black team is too good, their systems are too good, for a crisis to be justified. But that is being said by someone who is not a New Zealander and who has not been fed such a diet of repeated success that not just victory, but victory in style and by a big margin, has become an expectation.
The stakes are high at for both teams, but perhaps higher for New Zealand than for South Africa. The visitors need to win in a manner that would signify that it is a return to business as usual or they might find themselves under pressure from their media and public. That’s the sum of it.
The All Blacks, even at altitude, must start as favourites. But it isn’t by much, for just as the Boks shouldn’t expect to win again if they are denied ball like they were in Wellington, so it is unlikely that they will be as starved of possession in Pretoria as they were in the away game. The All Blacks would have started the southern hemisphere expecting this to be their toughest game. It might yet be.
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Francois Louw, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian Willemse
15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu'inukuafe
Substitutes: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo'unga, 23 Ryan Crotty