Rugby World Cup: Springboks ready to bring the fight to All Blacks
Kiwis the only side to never lose a pool match, South Africa can threaten that record
New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett clears a kick against South Africa during a Test match at Westpac Stadium in July 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. Photograph: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
Pool B: New Zealand v South Africa, International Stadium, Yokohama, Saturday, 10:45am Irish time. Live on Eir Sport and ITV
Time to rumble indeed. Three-time winners against two-timers, since the draw was made in May 2017 this one loomed the largest. Admittedly, when New Zealand filleted South Africa 57-0 later that year – the low point of Allister Coetzee’s calamitous reign – one could never have imagined the gap would have narrowed so much in the intervening period, to the point where it hardly seems to exist.
That is in part due to the All Blacks losing some of their solidity and sheen, but primarily due to Rassie Erasmus remoulding the Springboks into a cohesive and unified outfit under the inspiring captaincy of Siya Kolisi.
Founded on a powerful pack, solid set-pieces, the Faf du Klerk-Handré Pollard half-back combination and a proactive, outside-in blitz defence, they arrive as the tournament’s only unbeaten side this year.
In the three meetings since his arrival, they won one apiece and drawn the other, even scoring precisely 82 points each. Now it is they who are the settled ones, having retained the same team which beat Japan 41-7 two weeks ago for the first time since that 2015 semi-final, all of 51 matches ago.
The return of Kolisi is the only change from the Boks’ starting XV in that Wellington draw last July, whereas the All Blacks retain only five.
As was the case in their semi-final epic at Twickenham, the forecast rain will probably be more suited to the Boks’ power game, that aggressive line speed and trademark tackling.
Relatively new combinations abound for the All Blacks, who are also without Brodie Retallick. Sam Whitelock will be partnered by Scott Barrett, sent off by Jérôme Garcès in their mauling by Australia in Perth, and Erasmus has preyed upon All Blacks’ nerves by suggesting that in no longer being so far ahead of the rest, they will no longer benefit from officiating. He was duly rebuked by Hansen.
From an Irish perspective, there will also be no more meaningful match outside of Pool A than this Pool B opener, for if Ireland progress, they’ll almost certainly play today’s losers if they win their group, or today’s winners if they finish runners-up.
Steve Hansen is not inclined to cast a glance to a preferred knock-out route.
“We don’t know what will happen in the other pool. We could win this pool and Scotland could win theirs, or Ireland could. I think you can get too smart if you start thinking about things like that. You’ve just got to live where you are at the time and make sure you do it well. If we get to the quarter-final then it’s about making sure we turn up that day right and come back to work on Monday regardless of who we’re playing.
“The one thing I do know is that if we play to the best of our ability then it doesn’t matter who we play; they’re going to have to play really well to beat us and if they do so then well done to them and we have to accept that.
“But if they don’t,” he concluded with a pause, “then they may have to accept the consequences.” As ever, neatly put.
No team has ever won the World Cup after losing a pool match en route, but if ever that was likely to change it’s starting here. As Hansen noted, win or lose today, either way they’ll still probably have to win every game subsequently if they’re to win the Cup for the third time running.
Four years ago the All Blacks were indebted to a drop goal and the accuracy off the “t” of the Iceman, Dan Carter, and a try by Beauden Barrett after he came on for the last half-hour at fullback. Since crowned World Player of the Year twice for his exploits at outhalf, Barrett is back at fullback, with Richie Mo’unga at outhalf.
Although Damien McKenzie was cruelly sidelined early in the year, it was only after that 16-all draw in July, when Barrett’s suspect goal-kicking could not close out the win, that the All Blacks think tank concluded Mo’unga had to be included, in part for his goal-kicking as well as the dual playmaker tactic.
Asked if he came up with the idea in the shower, Hansen chuckled and said: “I don’t think about rugby in the shower.”
Historically, he added, the All Blacks employed a first and second five eighth at “10” and “12” before Ma’a Nonu and Sony Bill Williams emerged as more authentic inside centres.
“The way we want to play it, you need a couple of people to play at depth – one to play left and one to play right. So, that’s where it’s come from. It’s been in development. We had Damian McKenzie coming along nicely and then he got injured of course. That necessitated us to put Beauden and Richie in that role.” It’s a significant change-up, and a ballsy one at that.
The All Blacks are the only side in the history of the World Cup never to have lost a pool match. That record has never looked so imperilled.
Yet that second-half eclipse against the Wallabies with 14 men aside, their defence has also kept them in games, and lest we forget, they should have won in Wellington, for they also left tries behind. And if any team is smart enough to learn from a past meeting, and figure how to outmanoeuvre that all-or-nothing Boks’ defence, it is the world champions.
NEW ZEALAND: Beauden Barrett; Sevu Reece, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge; Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Nepo Laulala; Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt).
Replacements: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Shannon Frizell, TJ Perenara, Sonny Bill Williams, Ben Smith.
SOUTH AFRICA: Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi; Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx, Frans Malherbe; Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert; Siya Kolisi (capt), Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, RG Snyman, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn, Jesse Kriel.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England).
Overall head-to-head: Pl 98 New Zealand 58 wins, 4 draws, South Africa 36 wins.
Last five meetings: (2017) New Zealand 57 South Africa 0. (2017) South Africa 24 New Zealand 26. (2018) New Zealand 34 South Africa 36. South Africa 30 New Zealand 32. (2019) New Zealand 16 South Africa 16.
Betting: 4-9 New Zealand, 25-1 Draw, 15-8 South Africa. Handicap odds (South Africa +6 pts) Evens New Zealand, 20-1 Draw, Evens South Africa.
Forecast: New Zealand to win.