OPINION: The reverse fixture between the Springboks and the All Blacks in Pretoria on Sunday (NZT) is a mouth-watering prospect as all the interesting dynamics that make rugby a great sport are involved.
The 97th test meeting pits a growing South African team, with weaknesses, against a very strong New Zealand outfit that has definitely made mistakes within their process of preparation. By all accounts, it’s neither a flawless All Black team nor a Springbok side that is the finished product.
South Africa, a team completely on the ropes ahead of their clash with New Zealand in Wellington, have however risen from the ashes. Their performance against Australia in Port Elizabeth was by far their best of the year and it was the most accomplished under Rassie Erasmus to date.
During my time spent with the Springboks last season, Kriel was our best defensive outside centre by a country mile. In the mould of Bok legend Jaque Fourie, who marshalled South Africa’s defence and played 72 tests, Kriel’s communication and decision-making is on point. However, it wasn’t a one-man show against Australia. Collectively, the home team got off the line, defended with real intent and chased their kicks with brilliant intensity.
It’s just as well because the All Blacks pass the ball better than any other team in the world and their ability to get around sides is second to none. Many teams possess good passers, but what sets the All Blacks apart is that they boast forwards who also pass the ball beautifully.
It’s one thing to be able to pass the ball and another to execute with speed and accuracy. The All Blacks play well when the respect their opponents. However, the moment a team disrespects the opposition they open themselves up to be beaten, which is what happened in Wellington. The All Blacks conceded two unbelievably soft intercept tries from loose passes at the Westpac Stadium due to over-confidence.
I know for a fact that the All Black coaches didn’t disrespect the Springboks because they rate them and would never have picked their best side if they didn’t. Sometimes what you say as a coach off the field doesn’t necessarily translate to what happens on the field. The All Black coaching staff would have told the players to respect the Springboks, but deep down they didn’t.
Consequently, the one ally the Springboks had in Wellington – the All Black players underestimating them – won’t be with them in Pretoria. The home team won’t find a lackadaisical All Blacks outfit that thinks they can chuck the ball around and break the Springboks down from everywhere.
I cannot foresee the All Blacks playing from their own try-line like the Wallabies did to their detriment in the first minute of the match in Port Elizabeth. For me, the respect factor is what is going to make the test in Pretoria different to the one in Wellington. The All Blacks have also stated this week that they want to right the wrongs of Wellington, which underlines they are as motivated as the Springboks for the match.
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From a tactical point of view, the All Blacks will run the ball when it’s on but, without a doubt, the men in black will kick more at Loftus and look to play for territory. The All Blacks will aim to play in the right areas of the field and capitalise on their opportunities. The question is, can the Springboks live with the All Blacks if the latter side employ said game plan?
I believe the Boks are in with a good shout because the All Blacks aren’t at their sharpest at the moment. When you chop and change a team so much, not matter how good you are, you lose continuity. The All Blacks keep altering their playing personnel with the argument being they are building depth ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
However, as Erasmus and Steve Hansen have seen, you cannot chop and change the team the whole time and expect clinical precision. You can talk about taking opportunities as much as you want in a team meeting, but it won’t make you capitalise on them between the four white lines. The trick is that when the same unit plays together over an extended period of time, the players develop a feel for each other, which reveals itself on the field.
Faf de Klerk’s five-pointer against Australia in Port Elizabeth was a case in point. De Klerk anticipated that Handré Pollard could cut and take out the last line and he ran off him, which created a brilliant try under the sticks. In the past, it would more than likely have been a good line break without an end product.
From now on, both coaches will most probably opt for consistency in terms of selection with next year’s Rugby World Cup in mind.
* South African Brendan Venter is a 1995 Rugby World Cup winner and a former assistant coach of the Springboks.