Gerry Thornley: All Blacks poised to make final push

Mighty New Zealanders’ all-round strength can make difference against the Springboks

New Zealand perform the haka before the start of the quarter-final against France at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

New Zealand perform the haka before the start of the quarter-final against France at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

 

This could easily have been the final, but ever since the draw was made in December 2012, this one loomed as the day the Twickenham earth might shudder. And so it has come to pass, the collision between the sport’s two behemoths and final match-ups between a host of the modern-day grandees. It will, as Richie McCaw forecast, be brutal.

Another forecast, after 44 games in an Indian summer/mild autumn helped by Cardiff’s closed roof, is the rain. As a rule it’s generally a leveller, and this can only work to South Africa’s favour.

Ever since they were rocked by an opening day defeat to Japan, they have resorted to type. The running rugby which sparked the two outstanding thrillers of the last two years in Ellis Park (the more recent of which they won) have been abandoned.

Against Wales they monopolised possession, especially in the second half, but largely confined themselves to one-off runners, be it Schalk Burger (80 carries in the tournament to date, 20 more than anyone else), Duane Vermeulen or one of their other rumblers.

Winning try

Handre Pollard

There’s little doubt that the Boks will engage in another ferocious assault on the gain line, with and without the ball. They’ll attack the close-in channels, whereas the All Blacks will seek the corridors out wide, but they will not be afforded the space to indulge themselves the way France allowed in a benchmark performance that set Dan Carter, the rampaging Kieron Read, Julien Savea et al apart.

With more handling errors and more scrums, the Boks will also go after Joe Moody and co at scrum time, kick out of their own half and put plenty of air on the ball.

Second Captains

But as the All Blacks’ assistant coach Ian Foster noted yesterday when asked if the rain would change their game plan: “I don’t think it does. We know that the rain is going to come eventually. We have played the odd wet game in New Zealand, believe it or not, so we’ll be fine.”

Indeed, and no team’s skills’ sets and handling hold up in the rain better than the All Blacks, a team for all conditions and all days; hence beaten just three times in 52 matches since the last World Cup.

There are so many mouth-watering match-ups, not least the second-row and back-row, where McCaw and Burger will be locking horns for the last time.

“It will be the last time we play against each other,” said Burger. “He’s a quality player. He’s won more Test matches than I’ve played, so we can’t really compare. It’s almost like trying to compare golfers to Tiger Woods, it’s pretty tough.

“On the field, we’re equals. We play a bit of a different style, but both of us have massive work rates, so we find each other on the bottom of rucks or tackling each other, carrying the ball a hell of a lo . . .”

McCaw described Burger as “the epitome of the physicality they bring” and added ruefully: “I’ve picked up one or two scars against South Africa and I guess that sums up the intensity of matches between the All Blacks and the Springboks, and tomorrow will be another step up on that. It will be a pretty brutal game.

Extra scar

And then there’s the match-up between du Preez, the key man in South Africa’s 2007 World Cup triumph, and Aaron Smith, the heir to his throne as the world’s best scrumhalf.

Du Preeze’s record against the All Blacks is seven wins out of 12 matches. Historically the Springboks have a 64 per cent wining ratio, but when he plays that rises to 73 per cent.

As Boks’ assistant coach Johann van Graan said yesterday: “He has always had big games against them. He is composed under pressure, his belief in himself and the ability to see things others don’t see. A talent can hit a target nobody else can hit but a genius hits a target no-one else can see. And that is Fourie du Preez.”

Smith may not be as indispensable, but that’s more a reflection on New Zealand’s all-round strengths. What he lacks in du Preez’s wily experience, he more than makes up for with his razor-sharp pass, superior pace and mobility.

New Zealand also look to have much more proven ability in their vastly more experienced 10-12-13 combination, as well as being the more multi-dimensional side and with more impact off the bench.

Of course, this is do-or-die knockout rugby. The best sides don’t always win World Cups or World Cup semi-finals. The All Blacks have lost three of six semis before and have a losing World Cup record against the Boks. Yet if ever there was a time to put this to rights, today’s the day.

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