JON CARDINELLI analyses the key match-ups and picks a winner of the Rugby Championship Test in Soweto.
In the one corner we have the resurgent Springboks, who produced their most balanced showing of the season when they pulverised the Wallabies last week. In the other is the world champions, who have just come off their most convincing performance of 2012, a 54-15 bashing of Argentina.
The Rugby Championship title is no longer up for grabs, but there is a sense that this final Test of the competition could still prove to be the climax, a game and occasion to remember.
The All Blacks have plenty to play for. They haven’t lost to South Africa this year, and will be determined to maintain that mental hold over their fiercest foes.
They’ve won 15 games in a row, and four more victories will see them surpassing Lithuania for the most consecutive Test wins. A loss to South Africa this Saturday would scupper those ambitions.
The Boks have much to gain, and their desperation to win will be patent. Coach Heyneke Meyer revealed this week that his most realistic short-term goal has been to finish his first season with an undefeated home record. Victory at Soccer City would see Meyer and the Boks realising that ambition.
They’ll be driving for that minor milestone, and will use that massive, passionate crowd at the Calabash for extra motivation. Above and beyond that, there will be a belief that they can beat the All Blacks, having so nearly achieved this rare feat in Dunedin three weeks ago.
It was a day where wayward goal-kicking and poor option-taking by the halfbacks let them down. The forwards dominated at the point of contact, at the breakdowns, and through a much improved rolling maul. If the Boks can replicate that forward performance, it should create sufficient opportunities to win the game in Soweto.
The tight five has been excellent over the course of the last two games, and the loose forwards have thrived off such a powerful platform. The introduction of Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen to the starting side, as individuals and as part of a balanced loose trio combination, has been telling.
The Bok forwards will need to be on point in terms of clearing away the likes of Richie McCaw and Andrew Hore from the breakdown, as these All Blacks players excel at not only stealing possession but slowing opposition momentum. On the other hand, men like Louw will have a big role to play in stalling the Kiwis’ attack. The extent to which Louw is able to do so will determine the outcome of the game.
It’s not going to be a try-fest, and I’m not even going to apologise. The best matches, the most absorbing and tightly contested games, are those where both sides come to the party with outstanding defensive systems and kicking games. It takes something special to break the line, let alone score a try. And when that happens, it is all the more reason to celebrate.
The Boks may have produced a strong all-round showing against the Wallabies last week, but they have some way to go before they can boast the All Blacks’ balance between attack and defence.
Meyer has already said this week that the latter strength is more concerning than the former. How are the Boks going to fracture that World Cup-winning All Blacks’ defence?
It won’t be enough to win the forward battles, they will need to with the tussle for territory too. Ruan Pienaar assumed the tactical kicking duties last week, but he will need Johan Goosen to contribute more in a game of this nature. The accuracy of this pair will be crucial, as the All Blacks’ back three all have the potential to punish poor kicks.
Winning territory also won’t be enough, the Boks will need to put points on the board once they have the opposition on the ropes. Goosen has brought a spark to the Bok attack, but he will also be required to convert all shots on goal. It’s a lot of pressure for a 20-year-old to deal with in only his second Test start.
The All Blacks have subtly suggested that they will target Goosen when they are on the attack. What will make the young flyhalf’s task slightly easier is a superior showing by the Bok forwards. Dan Carter and his backline will present less of a gainline threat if they are operating with back-foot ball.
I believe Meyer is doing the right thing by backing Goosen, and I believe that the forwards have the potential to stand up to their All Blacks counterparts. The Calabash is a special place, and there could be another record crowd through the gates tomorrow. Don’t underestimate the galvanising impact that number of people can have on the home team.
But then again, it wasn’t enough before. In 2010, it seemed as if Soccer City had worked it’s magic until the All Blacks snatched a late try at the death.
It will be another close loss for the Boks this Saturday. Their goal-kicking hasn’t been nearly good enough, and that is a big handicap when you are playing the world champions. The All Blacks boast one of the best ever in this respect, namely Dan Carter.
To beat the world champions and stall their world record run would be an outstanding achievement, especially since the Boks aren’t operating at full strength.
However, it is because the Boks aren’t at full strength that a narrow loss should not be seen as a train smash. A close defeat to the All Blacks would not signify a lack of progress.
JC’S PREDICTION: All Blacks by 3
Springboks – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 Jaco Taute, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermuelen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Marcel Coetzee, 20 Elton Jantjies, 21 Juan de Jongh, 22 Pat Lambie.
All Blacks – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Tamati Ellison.