The Springboks will beat the All Blacks in Pretoria — and it is the result world rugby needs.
The All Blacks coaching staff has rolled the dice of good fortune one too many times, picking the core of their second-string squad members to play the best available Springboks in South Africa. They call it squad rotation and confidence in the depth of their squad. We in South Africa call it an insult. The team is still a good one, but it is the symbolism of what Henry has done that has insulted the South Africans. He has turned to the back-up to deliver a first test win in South Africa for him as All Blacks coach.
For a man who has limited success in South Africa it is a brave call or simply one that reflects his thoughts on the current strength of the Springboks.
Either way, Henry and his All Blacks must be made to pay, this weekend and next weekend. Back to back defeats for the All Blacks will bring some sanity to the test arena, whereas New Zealand success will only add imbalance to the pecking order.
Consider this: New Zealand played two completely different teams to smash Wales and Ireland on successive weekends. Then did the same to beat England and Scotland on successive weekends. In effect, they could have played the Grand Slam on two weekends, while some suggest they could have sent four teams over there and done the home unions on one weekend.
Now they’ve taken that form and squad approach into the Vodacom Tri Nations. They have played largely different sides against Australia and New Zealand and come away with four wins in succession. They beat the Wallabies in Auckland and made 12 changes for the Boks in Pretoria. If they win on Saturday it will mean they could actually play next year’s Tri Nations (which will be four matches again) in two weekends. They could play their home matches against the Wallabies and Boks on the same day and then send one team to Australia and one to South Africa for the away leg. It certainly would cut down on the schedule.
Most marvel at this depth, but it has devalued test rugby when one country supposedly puts out its best team to play the other’s best. It would be the equivalent of Australian cricket sending a one-day team to South Africa and at the same time another one is playing in England. No doubt both would have success, but it’s not the point. One of the countries is going to be robbed of seeing the best players in action.
That is why it is so important the All Blacks coming crashing back to planet Earth in Pretoria. And they will. They haven’t picked a good enough team to win and mentally these players are not strong enough to beat a fired up Bok team in Pretoria.
The Boks are desperate, having lost four in a row. I don’t think it matters who Jake White picks for Saturday’s match, they will not be leaving as losers. For the All Blacks it is a test after the fact, having already won the Tri Nations. For the Boks it is a test that represents more than rugby. It will define the rest of the year. You don’t have to be the brightest to know which of the two teams are suffering the hunger pains.
The second string All Blacks are vulnerable. We saw that against Ireland (in New Zealand) and especially in Buenos Aires. If they battled to overcome the Pumas, they won’t last the pace at altitude against the Boks.
Victory won’t mean there has been a noticeable improvement with the Boks. South Africa, in South Africa, are expected to win, regardless of the opponent. A Springbok team beaten four times in succession has no option but to win. Saturday’s result is non negotiable and Henry has helped by leaving out 12 of his best players.
Victory against the All Blacks in South Africa will also not be something new. For all the visitors’ brilliance, South African players do find that X factor when fronting the All Blacks in South Africa. And 50 000 nutters give them an even bigger lift.
New Zealand doesn’t have the pack to trouble the Springboks. The front row is disjointed, the lock pairing was poor for the Blues and the individuals in the back row are good, but as a unit they’ve not been tested.
Richie McCaw will also be flat after the last month. Yes he is human. We saw that against the Western Force in Perth during the Super 14 when he looked as mortal as the poorest openside flanker. He is the best player in the world, yes even more valuable than Dan Carter. But the bones have been crunched and he surely can’t peak again this weekend.
The backline is good, if patched up in the midfield. But as we saw in Johannesburg in 2004, when Henry picked as shabby a pack, it doesn’t matter how good your backs are if your forwards are being beaten up.
The Boks on Saturday are going to beat up the All Blacks and win by seven to 10 points. But they will win knowing they’ve knocked over the second stringers, which means the real interest will be the following week when Henry will have to pick his best team to restore world order.
New Zealand and South Africa are no longer a rivalry, as indicated by the 22 wins and one draw in 31 tests against South Africa since 1992. That’s not dominance; it’s more like attempted murder on the Bok. I say attempted because the All Blacks, by losing often enough in South Africa, haven’t cut off the blood supply.
The Boks breathe, if only just, and such is the difference in expectation that one Bok win will define the SA season, whereas one All Blacks defeat defines theirs’.
My prediction: Boks 29 All Blacks 22
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