The silence from within the Springbok squad is worth gold this week. So too the arrogance of the Kiwis in their selections.
It means we have a contest on Saturday.
Jake White’s mutterings about his own lack of planning (read no succession plan for Monty and Smit) aside, he’s given the All Blacks no additional motivation. The Bok coach has left the talking to the New Zealanders. And boy have they had plenty to say since winning the Tri Nations.
While they’ve talked up the Boks and the difficulty of playing in South Africa, you get a sense they’re trying to prepare their biased public for the all too familiar 3am Sunday morning text that talks of a first All Black defeat of the season. Some will argue the All Blacks are showing there won’t be any complacency, despite having won the Tri Nations. But I get the feeling they know that they’re not good enough to win successive tests in South Africa, which tells you they are not good enough to win the World Cup in Paris, where they’ll have to knock over three big guns in three weekends.
They know this isn’t Dublin or Cardiff where the victory march before kick-off is a safe option. They’ve lost to the Japies in South Africa too many times not to be concerned.
I also think their selectors have rolled the dice just that once too many, resting the wrong players and risking the wrong ones.
All year coach Graham Henry’s played the big hands and in five of the seven tests the All Blacks narrowly escaped embarrassment. Both tests could have been lost against Ireland, although Henry claimed it to be a character builder. Australia came close twice and the kind of struggle we saw from the All Blacks in Buenos Aires is so similar to the manner in which we see them struggle in South Africa. The Pumas, in losing 25-19, showed that a team that has physical presence and can match it with a bit of class will beat the All Blacks if the latter are a few percent off their game. The Pumas did not have the class. It is why France, England and South Africa will be a factor in derailing New Zealand’s hopes of a first World Cup title in 20 years.
You have to admire Henry’s planning and his boldness in backing his World Cup plan. You also have to applaud the results of the All Blacks in the last two years. But to place them on a pedestal would be too complimentary. They’re not that good and they’re not as good as the 1996 squad Sean Fitzpatrick captained.
If you take the XV that won the All Blacks a first ever series in South Africa a decade ago and compare it with the XV Henry is trusting to do the job on Saturday, only Richie McCaw and Dan Carter would make the 1996 team.
White, for all his public relations disasters this season, knows that the Boks have been given a temporary reprieve because of Henry’s selections. White, his players silent and the coach generally flattering about Henry and the All Blacks, has been on his best behaviour. It is encouraging because White has not attempted to rile the All Blacks and he has also not publicly questioned the quality of this All Blacks team. His silence shows how delighted he is that Henry has mixed and matched, especially up front.
Think about it: The All Blacks are playing a loose-trio that has never started a test together, a lock combination that was average in the Super 14 and a front row that has not enjoyed regular game time. His backs are more settled, but it is the pack that should prove a weakness on Saturday.
White will announce his team later today. My advice to him is to keep his focus on who he has picked, to blow a bit of smoke up the Kiwis and tell them how wonderful they are and then to go out on Saturday and punish the hand Henry has played.
These guys are not gods and it is important every Bok knows this. The team Henry has picked for Saturday does not deserve to be placed alongside Fitzpatrick’s pedigree when history talks of those who have conquered the Boks in South Africa. It would be the final insult to a rivalry that survives only because a decent South African side is still capable of beating a good All Blacks team in South Africa.
The moment a decent South African side loses to a decent All Blacks team in South Africa, it will no longer be a rivalry but a formality to win here for future New Zealand teams.
New Zealand must lose, if only to show those arrogant buggers that if you want to win in the Republic then you play your best team.