- Bok coach Jacques Nienaber will look on with a sense of helplessness and envy for the Christchurch derby.
- It serves as another highly educative "trial match" for All Black counterpart Ian Foster.
- The Crusaders won comfortably during Super Rugby-proper in 2020, but this could be a very different story.
Jacques Nienaber was officially confirmed as new Springbok head coach on what seems a very distant 24 January.
If you had told him there and then that by mid-July he would not only not have had a Test match to oversee yet, but also only witness around a dozen late-summer Super Rugby matches for each local franchise, he might have had reason to question your sanity.
But that is the sad state of play due to the coronavirus, currently only strengthening its merciless hold on the country even as others come out from their lockdown “hiding” ... New Zealand, of course, with a special confidence.
The Nienaber tenure was initially scheduled to have kicked off last Saturday, with the first of two Tests for the World Cup holders against Scotland at Newlands, a mini-series followed soon afterwards by the visit of minnows Georgia.
Instead the Bok agenda for what is left of the 2020 calendar year is shrouded in uncertainty.
Things are moving altogether more fluidly in All Black country, where their rearranged, all-domestic version of Super Rugby - Aotearoa - only gathers pace and national head coach Ian Foster has already had generous time to assess the present form or potential of multiple candidates for the national team.
The stakes have been raised for Foster to take diligent notes as there are increasing reports of an expanded four-Test, Bledisloe Cup series against the old foes from across the ditch, Australia, soon after the two regional, active Super Rugby competitions have run their course.
On Saturday (09:05 SA time), he gets a dream “super-trial” in that respect: a succulent clash to mark the halfway point in Christchurch between the Crusaders and Blues, both with perfect win records after three fixtures each.
There will be no shortage of All Black 2020 possibles from the three other franchises, but this game somehow seems an especially educative occasion for Foster and his immediate lieutenants - and a source of some envy for Nienaber’s own coaching panel, who are a long way behind in their ability to keep up to speed with South African players both home and abroad.
Even if rugby was alive and kicking across the planet at this point, Saturday’s glamour NZ derby would be extremely hard to eclipse for ringside appeal and the mass levels of quality in the respective line-ups: it is barely different to a Test match in many respects.
While they are no longer holders of the Webb Ellis Cup after successive triumphs in 2011 and 2015, keep in mind that New Zealand still claimed the bronze medal in Japan late last year and could claim to have knocked over the eventual champions, the Boks, in their early pool meeting.
So the country is hardly in a major rugby crisis of confidence, and hopes of the All Blacks returning to the top of the pile as quickly as possible would only have boomed with impressive evidence from the first few rounds of Aotearoa.
The Crusaders v Blues tussle has been especially keenly awaited on those shores, given the increasing threat the Aucklanders have been to the long-time mastery of the ‘Saders in fuller Super Rugby.
While the Cantabrians came away with a comfortable 25-8 triumph the last time the teams locked horns, at Eden Park in mid-February, even home ground advantage this time may not be enough for this one to be considerably more knife-edge stuff.
The Blues have shown increased levels of composure and polish during Aotearoa ... enough to suggest that they will be capable of taking this clash right to the wire if they produce their A-game on the day.
For their part, the Crusaders have had the kitchen sink thrown at them fairly frequently in the last few weeks - yet always had that “champion quality” at critical stages to emerge victorious.
Tussles that Foster and company peruse with extra interest will include the one at wing between the Crusaders’ No 14 Sevu Reece and the emerging sensation on the Blues’ left, the formidably stocky yet also highly explosive 21-year-old Caleb Clarke.
All Black flyhalf incumbent Richie Mo’unga, meanwhile, comes up against Otere Black, who has looked more and more like a suitable general for the Aucklanders and now among a raft of challengers for the key NZ No 10 berth.
In the packs, the second-row scrap between versatile Test veteran Sam Whitelock, currently doing No 4 duty for the ‘Saders, and Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu will be intriguing, as will the scrumming duel between Joe Moody and the mammoth figure of Ofa Tuungafasi.
Yes, it’s almost enough to make Nienaber weep ...
15 David Havili, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Mitchell Dunshea, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor (captain), 1 Joe Moody
Substitutes: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Fetuli Paea, 23 Will Jordan
15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Harry Plummer, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman
Substitutes: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Karl Tu'inukuafe, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Aaron Carroll, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 TJ Faiane, 23 Matt Duffie
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