The All Blacks’ message that they are in South Africa to “right a wrong” couldn’t have been more chilling. Steve Hansen and his men have become used to rolling into this country in the closing stages of the Rugby Championship with the title in their back pocket, happy to play an exhibition match to conclude the showpiece.
The New Zealanders arrived this week with the title in tow for the sixth time in seven years, but their swagger was notably missing, thanks to the events that unfolded in Wellington three weekends ago. There, the Springboks made off with the equivalent of the visitors’ cell phones, wallets and bling in a 36-34 smash-and-grab facilitated by the kind of Herculean defensive effort that – much like the Japanese effort against the Boks in Brighton at the 2015 Rugby World Cup – could well demand its own film in future.
Now the All Blacks are seething, bent on retribution, and few places give them a better chance of getting it than Loftus Versfeld. The Boks have a 77% win ratio at the Pretoria stadium, which is at altitude and will be crammed full of 50 000 rabid “Africans”, as the New Zealanders like to call South Africans. They’ll relish the challenge.
Record at Loftus
Loftus might be intimidating to other visitors, but the All Blacks haven’t lost a game there since the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby. They have won all four of their matches in Pretoria with an average score of 41-22, scoring 17 tries in the process. The only time South Africa have won against the All Blacks in Pretoria was 48 years ago. But now, a dead rubber between rivals has become possibly the most important game in world rugby this year for a range of reasons.
Since 2000, the Boks have routinely turned up for hidings from New Zealand, winning just 11 out of 41 games. The odds are heavily stacked against the Springboks. The All Blacks have never lost more than one game in a single edition of the Rugby Championship. The Springboks haven’t beaten the All Blacks in successive games since 2009. England and Ireland, New Zealand’s opponents in November, will be watching keenly for signs of weakness. And there’s the small matter of setting the psychological tone for 21 September 2019 in Yokohama, when the Boks and the All Blacks meet in their World Cup pool match.
All in the haka
Three weeks ago, the All Blacks signalled that they expected a routine fixture by opting for the Ka Mate version of the haka. This time, there’s no doubt they’ll go for Kapa o Pango, the one reserved for fierce rivalries – and righting wrongs.
The fact that the Boks have dented the visitors’ egos is apparent in their team selection. Usually the All Blacks pick teams either for tactics or their project of building a squad with enough depth to dominate world rugby in perpetuity. But this week’s call-ups have felt both punitive and reactive.
There is no place for Jordan Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, who came under scrutiny after the game in Wellington. Only fly half Beauden Barrett, who missed four kicks at goal, has been retained, which may have a lot to do with his status as the world’s best player and a regular tormentor of the Boks in previous years. The inclusion of blindside flanker Shannon Frizell, centres Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue, and winger Waisake Naholo – all big fellas – is aimed at addressing the void created by the injury to the beastly lock forward Brodie Retallick.
By contrast, the Boks have cut relaxed figures, possibly because the win in Wellington gave them the leeway to have little to prove despite being the team playing at home. That relaxed attitude has extended to their selections. Francois Louw, for instance, has been picked out of position at number eight despite having looked half a yard off the pace this season.
Fullback Willie le Roux running out in his 50th test is testament to how coach Rassie Erasmus is willing to be proven wrong. When the then budding Boland player was on trial at Western Province, it was Erasmus who turned him away because he “wasn’t good enough”, but now the Wasps player is arguably the most important player in the Bok backline.
Perhaps the most eye-catching thing about the Bok team is that, with a big game on the line, Erasmus, who was seen as an advocate for transformation upon his arrival, has chosen just three black players to start his most important test yet. He’ll argue that there are nine black players in his squad of 23 – a healthy return by our head-counting standards. But a story for another day might be that he’s entrusted most of them with the all-important responsibility of seeing the game through from the bench.
The Boks have three things working for them. Their ultraphysical style makes them the brawler to the All Blacks’ polished boxer routine, meaning they can, for want of a better phrase, drag them down to their level and mug them there; they now know they can beat the world’s best team; and their conditioning is such that they’ll still be chasing black shadows long after the game is finished.
The record between the two sides suggests an All Black win. It would take an eternal optimist to expect an upset at Loftus. But, then again, who saw Wellington coming?