Cape Town - It’s a difficult job pinpointing which cluster of individual one-on-ones to particularly highlight for Saturday’s mouth-watering Wellington clash between grand old foes the All Blacks and Springboks (09:35 SA time).
Just about every positional duel has its tantalising aspects, a situation enhanced by the high level to which sprightly, dominating performances could influence starting berths in the respective sides at the bigger-picture RWC 2019 in Japan - and their virtually instant bilateral “rematch” in Pool B on September 21.
But here is my own selection of appealing ones for the Cake Tin tussle, marked in some instances by daring, quirky selection from respective coaches Steve Hansen and Rassie Erasmus ...
Willie le Roux v Beauden Barrett
Both sets of back threes look enormously geared for attacking potency, so it is just possible we’ll see a repeat (or something not too far off that) of last season’s 11-try spectacle at the same venue, when the Boks prevailed 36-34 despite NZ nosing out the dot-downs 6-5.
But the respective fullbacks may well be the catalysts for much of what is positive and dynamic from those areas, given their in-built penchants for flair and creativity.
The Boks will almost certainly plan to seriously examine twinkle-toed Barrett’s suitability to No 15 duty in his intriguing mere third exposure (he has 74 caps as things stand) to the last line of defence; he remains probably their first-choice option at No 10 if, for instance, a World Cup final featuring them were played tomorrow.
Barrett’s two prior starts at No 15, remember, have both come against lesser foes: Italy in Rome in 2012 and Japan in Tokyo a year later.
While the more generous space available to him at times should keep the Bok defence very much on its toes, how he fares positionally and in a defensive capacity - the lean customer ought to have to deal with a fifty-fifty “bomb” or two - will be closely monitored by friend and foe.
Le Roux, just some three weeks shy of his 30th birthday, has enjoyed all of his last 39 Boks starts strictly in the last line of defence - he had a few early-career caps at wing - so is the more settled presence of the two by some distance and was a significant offensive threat in last year’s Wellington hundinger.
Handre Pollard v Richie Mo’unga
No pivot in Super Rugby 2019 could emphatically claim to have been better than the Bulls’ admirably consistent Pollard, despite the quality of the tournament-wide field.
He will enter this, his 40th Test, on a wave of confidence and backed by his record of often producing some of his most assertive rugby (even if not always in triumph) against these top-notch opponents.
Pollard is not only banging over his place-kicks with near-clockwork precision, but taking the ball to the gain-line with gusto and making his tackles firmly in a key area of the park, into the bargain.
Probably expecting initially to encounter old international direct foe Barrett in the channel on Saturday, instead he comes up against Crusaders maestro Mo’unga, earning a wonderful chance to impress there in his 10th All Black appearance and only third start.
The 25-year-old from Christchurch featured briefly (and out of position) against the Boks as a substitute at Loftus last season, but otherwise has no experience of calling the shots at ten against the old enemy.
Between them, it will be interesting to see whether Mo’unga and Barrett can match the traditional accuracy at posts of Pollard; the South African’s superior comfort in that capacity in the Cake Tin last year went some way to explaining the shock result.
Just outside the No 10s, an important battle also takes place between the big inside centres, Damian de Allende and Sonny Bill Williams, neither assured of first-choice status there, come the World Cup …
Kwagga Smith v Matt Todd
Call it Rassie’s big left-field pick: the presence of speedy, low-centre-of-gravity Lions favourite Smith on the open-side flank for South Africa.
It is a major (not to mention daunting) opportunity for him to atone for a so-so debut in that questionable early-season “Test” against Wales in a wet Washington DC last year.
While his poaching potential on the deck will be one area in which he is expected to deliver meaningfully for the Boks, that ought not to be the be-all and end-all of his involvement on Saturday - not by a long shot.
The visitors will expect more muscular souls like Malcolm Marx and Duane Vermeulen to get busy over the ball as well, and Smith’s roaming, darting and linking qualities could be deemed a vital extra feather in the Boks’ attack cap.
Indeed, his general mobility will make him a valued track-back figure on scrambling defence against an All Black outfit eternally willing to produce wowing, ball-in-hand rugby.
But if he does get dragged more necessarily into a get-the-fingernails-dirty role, he will be within regular breathing distance of Crusaders stalwart Todd, a specialist mole and all too often an understudy to Sam Cane (Ardie Savea tends to be higher in the pecking order as well) for the NZ open-side chore.
The 31-year-old Todd, who learned much of his craft from Richie McCaw, has a current 16-cap advantage over Bok rival Smith in Test appearances, though this will be only his fifth from the outset of combat - one was the 57-15 drubbing of the Springboks in Durban during the Allister Coetzee era.
Eben Etzebeth v Brodie Retallick
Yes, this is an “old one” ... a bit like Saturday’s rival captains and No 8s, Kieran Read and Duane Vermeulen is an “old one”.
But the scrap also assumes no less relevance this weekend than it traditionally does, as the respective No 4 lock enforcers lock horns once again at the very highest level.
Both meanies have racked up a few air miles to get to this one: Etzebeth turned out against Australia at Ellis Park only last weekend before becoming the only Bok tight forward to be asked to start once again in New Zealand, while Retallick was also fronting up then against Argentina in a tense, industrial clash in Buenos Aires.
But their natural competitive juices should flow in no small measure, nevertheless, at Westpac Stadium, where gains will be made a lot of the time in hard, bruising yards ... especially in the first half.
Coincidentally, both men will be earning their 77th caps, and Retallick presumably intent on preserving his proud record against SA: all wins so far in 10 appearances (conveniently, he missed last year’s Cake Tin setback).
Etzebeth has a humble 2/11 win record, by contrast, against the All Blacks. But everyone also knows that that is through no special fault on his part - he always hurtles into them full-bloodedly, come what may on the scoreboard.
15 Beauden Barrett; 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane; 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 TJ Perenara; 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Shannon Frizell; 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick; 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Substitutes: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 George Bridge
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen (captain), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Jesse Kriel
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