All Blacks’ confidence against Boks dips ahead of World Cup

The rugby rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand is back on an even keel, with Kiwi fans and players wary once again of their African opponents. Just in time for the Rugby World Cup.

My rugby WhatsApp group is densely populated with New Zealand fans, a bunch who – given the All Blacks’ status as back-to-back champions in the previous two Rugby World Cups – can be sniffily superior at best, insufferable at worst.

To drop broad hints as to the authenticity of their support, the boys have generally adopted an affected familiarity with all things All Black when they talk about the Brazil of rugby union.

The players are on a first name basis, coach Steve Hansen and predecessor Graham Henry are “Shag” and “Ted” respectively. And a few years ago, the issue that bugged them within the New Zealand game was the presence of the name of insurance giants AIG on the front of their precious team’s black jersey.

But since the Springboks drew 16-16 against the All Blacks in their Rugby Championship clash on 27 July in Wellington, New Zealand, life has been a bit more bearable in the group for the non-Men in Black fans.

Jitters among All Blacks fans

The smugness (someone demanded that the All Blacks be handed this year’s World Cup trophy after a particularly impressive victory last year) has been eroded somewhat and replaced with grumbles about the black juggernaut supposedly springing a few leaks.

Someone went so far as to accuse Hansen of losing the plot with his insistence on starting an ageing and barely fit Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre against the Boks, and his left-field attempts at dealing with the All Blacks’ real issue, the lack of a world-class blindside flanker.

The Williams “problem” is merely preferential. The latter is the real concern because Jerome Kaino’s departure has left a redoubtable void. The advertisement for his replacement reads, “Wanted: A tough bastard in possession of both flash and substance.”

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But at the heart of the jitters all New Zealand supporters are going through at the moment is the fact that the Springboks appear to be back inside the All Blacks’ heads as their toughest opponents in their history of Test rugby.

After an Allister Coetzee tenure in which the rivalry between the two countries was all but extinguished by the New Zealanders putting 50 points past their South African counterparts on two occasions, there has been little to separate the two teams in terms of results.

The draw in Wellington followed three other results in which both sides conceded two-point defeats last year and the All Blacks won by a point in Coetzee’s last game as coach of the Springboks against them. It’s a state of affairs unfamiliar to new All Blacks fans. But the team itself has always privately dreaded the Boks regaining their competitiveness.

A question of physical courage

Ask any All Blacks player about a pending game against the Springboks and the poor bastard tends to squint into the middle-distance and wince before telling you how physical he expects the encounter against “the Africans”, as they like to call the Boks, to be.

This is because for years, playing against the Springboks has meant physical courage was a superior currency to good old-fashioned rugby skills or smarts for a New Zealand player, as playing the Boks is akin to wrestling an enraged buffalo non-stop for 80 minutes.

For a team that is basically the Floyd Mayweather of rugby – that is, a side that values finesse above brawl, and looking pretty after the event – getting caught up in the effective mugging that is a game against the Boks is not the Kiwis’ idea of a productive afternoon on the field.

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The epitome of this in the Wellington draw in July – a sequel to last year’s “Miracle of Wellington” game in which the Boks tackled themselves into their first win in New Zealand since 2009 – was the head-to-head battle between wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Rieko Ioane.

Wee Cheslin versus Big Rieko

Head-to-head is a bit of a misnomer here because of the vast difference in the two players’ dimensions. New Zealand’s Ioane is a 1.89m, 103kg thoroughbred who has run the 100m in under 11 seconds, scored 22 tries from 25 Tests and honestly thinks he would have been a singer had he not been a rugby player.

By comparison, South Africa’s Kolbe is 18cm shorter and 23kg lighter. The fact that he takes to the field in a scrum cap furthers the idea that he is such a slight player his mom must have said that wearing it would be the only way he got to play the game.

Yet as the Boks refused to go away in the stalemate against the All Blacks, it was Kolbe who had gotten so far under the bigger man’s skin that he had the usually cocky Ioane in a mild panic throughout the game. 

Each time the ball came Ioane’s way, he either snatched at it or rushed what he was doing as Kolbe harassed him into not wanting to get into possession. When he wasn’t being stopped in his tracks by a smaller man punching above his weight, Ioane was knocking the ball on because he was preoccupied with what Kolbe would do next to thwart him.

Kolbe the Bok spirit animal

In a way, Kolbe’s plucky, workaholic and streetwise showing against Ioane and the All Blacks makes him an unlikely but genuine spirit animal for the way the Boks have always gone about their business against their more talented rivals.

Mostly big, clumsy and with little time for flash over substance – which at times have given them the creativity of a blunt object in attack – a clash of styles has always been key to the Boks making a nuisance of themselves against the All Blacks. 

Apart from the usual suspects of a big, aggressive pack of forwards, scrumhalves who are actually good, a flyhalf with a good kicking game, ridiculous line speed in defence, a clarity of roles and purpose in defence and attack, not to mention conditioning that is unrecognisable, former Springbok coach Jake White explained why the Boks are giving the All Blacks the hurry-up again.

Boring the All Blacks to death

“You have to get them to start believing they can lose,” he began. “You have to find a way when they can look at the scoreboard and think, ‘This is not happening,’ because New Zealand teams get their comfort out of the scoreboard. 

“The way the Boks have played has kept that scoreboard close for long periods of time and eventually the All Blacks start to doubt themselves. It sounds negative but if the Test match is boring, in inverted commas, it actually suits us. If it’s 6-3 after 60 minutes, SA teams like it because that’s not what New Zealand teams are used to.”

The upshot of Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’ improvements is that with the last game of a shortened Rugby Championship tournament against Argentina on Saturday 10 August, the Boks are on the threshold of winning this competition for the first time in a decade.

As things stand, South Africa are a point ahead of New Zealand, who are on seven points, meaning a convincing win would get them over the line. This is a possibility, given that the Boks should play their best team for the first time in the competition.

Jinx, what jinx?

But the catch is that no team that has won a Tri Nations (the tournament’s original name) or Rugby Championship in a World Cup year has gone on to win the Webb Ellis trophy. Surprisingly, Erasmus isn’t bothered by the jinx because he’s working on another premise, which is that South African teams feed off a winning momentum.

That’s why he nailed his colours to the mast about wanting to win this tournament in the absence of two South African teams making the Super Rugby final, as was the case with the Sharks and the Bulls in 2007, the last time the Boks won the World Cup.

White is another one who doesn’t buy into the jinx talk: “The only reason people can say that about teams that win the Rugby Championship in a World Cup year is because we’ve never won it. If we’d won the Rugby Championships in those years, we’d have won the World Cup as well because we’re a nation that plays off momentum.”

If that is the case, interesting times beckon in the old WhatsApp group chat.

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