All Blacks primed for Rugby World Cup clash of the titans

No team has rattled the All Blacks’ cage throughout the years quite like the Springboks

As the thunderstorms gather for the weekend hereabouts, there has simply never been a thunderous collision on the opening weekend of a World Cup to compare with Saturday’s Pool D encounter in Yokohama (kick-off 6.45pm locally, 10.45am Irish).

New Zealand and South Africa are superpowers, who between them have won five of the previous eight World Cups, and no team has rattled the All Blacks' cage quite like the Springboks. In 98 meetings over their 98-year rivalry, the Boks have won 36 and drawn four to the All Blacks' 58 wins, and in World Cups it's 2-2. The All Blacks avenged defeats in the 1995 final and '99 third place play-off with wins in the 2003 quarter-final and 2015 semi-final.

But up until the advent of professionalism the All Blacks had never won a series in South Africa, whereas the Boks had in New Zealand, and they’d also registered 21 wins to New Zealand’s 18.

Time was when some of their battles, especially in the amateur era, could be spiteful affairs, but when you ask Ian Foster what makes the rivalry so special, he pauses for a moment and says: "Deep respect, I reckon.

“I think that we have always had a huge regard for the South Africans as a rugby team. They are a team that we probably have our most physical contests with but then we probably have the best chat in the shed afterwards with. There’s always been a deep respect based on the level of commitments that both teams put in. It’s probably as simple as that.”

Uneasy lies the crown?

Unlike 2011 and certainly four years ago, the All Blacks seem more vulnerable, with relatively new combinations in the front and back rows, half-back and the back three, while in stark contrast to the test rugby’s most capped centre combination of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, their midfield is also open to all manner of conjecture.

Furthermore, Foster also re-iterated they were "pretty sure" Brodie Retallick would not be fit for this pivotal opener, despite the Boks' assistant coach Matt Proudfoot maintaining, in regard to the brilliant lock: "I wouldn't be surprised if they (All Blacks) have a trick up their sleeve".

Yet speaking to colleagues in the travelling New Zealand media corps, and listening to Foster and four of their players speak from their splendiferous base in the Conrad Tokyo (where Ireland stayed two years ago) they truly do seem to be in a good place.

They were blown away by their welcome in Kashiwa, north-east of the Japanese capital, on Monday, when Japanese school children performed a haka at their team hotel which Steve Hansen described as "mind-blowing really."

And certainly the prospect of facing the Boks first up has served to focus their minds. Hence, they had no plans to attend the Ireland v Scotland game in Yokohama on Sunday, despite the distinct possibility they may face one or other in the quarter-finals.

“No, as you guys will know, we have our own problems on Saturday. As we have been saying all along, we’re actually not thinking too far ahead in this tournament right now because this weekend is a pretty big weekend. That’s kind of made it really good for us coaches because it allowed us to put all our energy into that first game.”

There’s pressure on the reigning back-to-back champions to win a third World Cup in a row, but then again, nothing new there.

As Anton Lienert-Brown put it: "I guess it's the Rugby World Cup and this is the biggest stage for rugby, but I know definitely for me there's always pressure on an All Blacks' jersey. We're always expected to perform, and expected not just to win, but to win well.

“I’ve felt that since day one that I’ve been in here. You can definitely feel a little bit of added pressure (with this World Cup) but I know that being in this environment for a while now that the pressure is always there and we don’t just get that from the outside, within we put that pressure on ourselves because we want to perform at the highest level.”

Nevertheless, the All Blacks centre has admitted previously that the pressure to achieve as near to physical perfection as possible led to mental health issues, something Liam Squire cited as one of the reasons for ruling himself out of the tournament.

“Over the last four years I’ve had to balance it out,” said Lienert-Brown. “When I first came in here everything was about rugby, and that probably bogged me down a little bit, but now I’ve got a much better balance, a much better process and I’m just focusing on doing the work during the week, but also enjoying it as well. So when I go out there on Saturday I can just go out there and express myself.”

In this, he has also admitted that a conversation with Gilbert Enoka was a turning point. "There's definitely a lot of support in here. The boys support you, and then you've got the management. Berts, our mental skills coach, he's massive for us. You've sort of got to find out a little bit about yourself and what works for you, but there's definitely heaps of support."

Lienert-Brown’s passion for his work is palpable. He dismisses the notion that the “process” which the All Blacks have reverted to in another test match week can never be boring.

“We love the game and I think when you love what you’re doing it’s easier to do and we know the importance of repeating things over and over again, to try and be the best in the world at them. And we pride ourselves on our skills. So those things can’t get boring for us. And for me personally, I love doing it because I love the game.”

Lienert-Brown grew up idolising Sonny Bill Williams, also half-Samoan, half-Kiwi, of whom he said, a tad emotionally: "He's just one of the greatest men you can meet on and off the field. He's a true professional and one of the most loveliest guys off the field as well."

The internal pressure to succeed with the All Blacks assuredly emanates from the knowledge that, unlike any other country in the world, that jersey means so much to such an inordinately high percentage of New Zealanders, for they were all dreamers and fans themselves first.

So it is that when you ask Lienert-Brown when he first dreamed of playing for the All Blacks, he pauses and then confesses with a laugh: “Emm, when I could first dream.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times