An understrength and somewhat vulnerable Springbok team will struggle to live with the All Blacks in Albany on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Consider the Bok team that has been selected for the Test at the North Harbour Stadium on Saturday. Ask yourself: Is this combination truly capable of beating the All Blacks?
The Boks go into this clash without several key players. They have been forced to field third-choice players at tighthead prop and at No 8 due to injuries.
The Boks are missing senior players such as captain Warren Whiteley, Duane Vermeulen, Frans Malherbe, Coenie Oosthuizen and Jaco Kriel. None of the replacements in the aforementioned positions boast the same level of experience, or indeed the leadership skills to make a difference in a contest of this nature.
Eight years ago, John Smit’s team became the third Bok side to win on New Zealand soil (in the professional era). One cannot see the class of 2017 – with all of its injury problems and tactical shortcomings – becoming the fourth.
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The All Blacks have suffered their own losses. They will go into this match without seasoned front-rankers such as Owen Franks and Joe Moody.
Ben Smith, the best fullback on the planet, won’t be available. Israel Dagg, another classy winger-cum-fullback with oodles of big-match experience, has been ruled out because of injury.
That said, coach Steve Hansen has still managed to select a strong and experienced side.
The All Blacks have noted the Boks’ improvements over the past few months. Hansen and company have managed the New Zealand players with the clash against the Boks in mind. Several first-choice players sat out the recent clash against Argentina in New Plymouth so that they would be fresh for this potentially campaign-defining battle against the Boks in Albany.
Expect the All Blacks to dust off the Kapa o Pango haka on Saturday. Expect their revamped forward pack – Hansen has made a statement by dropping last week’s star Vaea Fifita for Liam Squire – to get stuck into the Boks at the collisions and breakdowns in the first half.
Expect the halfback combination of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett to make the most of that front-foot ball. The Bok midfield has had its problems on defence recently. It’s out wide and at the back, though, where there is cause for real concern.
The Boks can’t afford to lose the collisions this weekend. They need to find a way to pressure the All Blacks at the lineouts and to deny the hosts possession at the back of that set piece. Ultimately, they need to ensure that Smith and Barrett don’t receive the ball on the front foot and that that they don’t have the opportunity to dictate the flow of the game.
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The Boks have been too passive on defence in this tournament. They’ve given away metres in the wider channels, and have often been breached. They are fortunate that the weak tackling of their wingers hasn’t cost them too dearly to date.
It wouldn’t surprise to see Smith launching a box kick for his wingers to chase. It wouldn’t surprise to see Rieko Ioane getting on top of his smaller South African counterpart, Raymond Rhule.
The All Blacks have a weakness at the back. If the Boks do manage to win the forward battle, and if Elton Jantjies does enjoy sufficient time and space to implement the kick-chase strategy, the visitors should look to target the diminutive Damian McKenzie.
Of course, this ploy could backfire if Jantjies does not kick accurately and if his wingers don’t rush up to pressure the man under the high ball. The All Blacks have the means to punish the Boks on the counter-attack.
Allister Coetzee has said that the All Blacks are vulnerable. It’s true that Hansen’s side hasn’t lived up to its own high standards in 2017.
The All Blacks lost one Test and drew another in the three-game series against the British & Irish Lions. They’re yet to lose a game in this year’s Rugby Championship, but they’re also yet to produce a clinical 80-minute performance.
This bodes badly for the Boks. The All Blacks will not want for motivation this Saturday. They will see a fixture against their traditional foes – who are yet to lose a Test in 2017 – as an opportunity to make a statement.
A win would strengthen the All Blacks’ claim for yet another Rugby Championship title. The Boks, in their current guise, would do well to remain competitive. A loss by seven points or less – and a resultant bonus point – could be seen as a sign of progress for a team that lost 41-13 and 57-15 in their Tests against the All Blacks in 2016.
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Stats and facts
o The All Blacks have won nine of their last 10 games against the Springboks, including each of their last four and a 42-point win when they last met, which stands as the biggest win in the history of the fixture.
o The All Blacks have won their last seven games against the Springboks when hosting them in New Zealand, conceding an average of just 12 points per game in that period.
o Of the five nations to have played multiple games at North Harbour Stadium, New Zealand (six) and South Africa (two) are the only two that remain undefeated at the venue.
o This will be the first Test at North Harbour Stadium since South Africa defeated Samoa 13-5 at the 2011 World Cup, and the first time New Zealand have played a Test there since brushing past Fiji in a 91-0 win in 2005.
o The All Blacks have won the most rucks per game (92) and boast the best ruck-success rate (97%) of any team this competition. They are also the only squad yet to lose a scrum on their own feed.
o South Africa are yet to concede a try in the opening or closing quarter this campaign; each of the other three teams have conceded at least three in each of those periods.
o Elton Jantjies (49) has opened up a 10-point gap at the top of the point-scoring leaderboard, and is yet to miss a conversion attempt (10).
All Blacks – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.
Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane,19 Lood de Jager, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Damian de Allende.
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Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images