The halfway point in The Rugby Championship has arrived, and with just one point separating South Africa and New Zealand at the top of the table, all eyes will be on Auckland this weekend, as the All Blacks and Springboks do battle at Eden Park. A win for either side will go a long way towards making their championship dreams a reality, but a win for the visiting Boks will be a significant blow to New Zealand’s hopes, who are already a point behind their rivals, and have to travel to Ellis Park in the final round of TRC fixtures.
The All Blacks laboured to a 28-13 victory over Argentina last weekend, and will be under no illusions that they will need to turn in an improved performance this week, if they are overcome the challenge of South Africa. One blow to New Zealand’s chances will be the omission of captain Richie McCaw, who is suffering from a knee injury, and will be replaced by the talented, but relatively inexperienced, Sam Cane. The loss of McCaw’s experience has been minimised by the returns of Ma’a Nonu and Liam Messam, with the former returning after missing the Argentina game through injury, and the latter making his first appearance in this year’s tournament, following a hamstring injury.
Victories for the Boks in New Zealand have been rare of late, but this team has really begun to gel under coach Heyneke Meyer, and they are currently playing some of their best rugby since their 2009 series victory over the British and Irish Lions. History is certainly against South Africa, with New Zealand winning their last 30 tests at Eden Park, and having not lost to South Africa in New Zealand for the last four years. They also enjoy an enviable record of having lost just once in their last 27 tests home and away, with their sole loss coming at the hands of England at Twickenham in 2012. That being said, South Africa will have witnessed the pressure Argentina managed to put New Zealand under at points last week, and will be confident they have the ability to exert even more on a New Zealand side shorn of their inspirational captain.
All Eyes On
With McCaw out, the responsibility to fill his considerable shoes falls on his young deputy, Cane, but the openside flanker should be ably assisted by the returning Liam Messam. Such is Messam’s importance to the All Blacks, that Steven Luatua, who has barely put a foot wrong filling in for Messam during his injury, has found himself relegated to the bench, allowing the veteran to resume his role at blindside flanker. A fierce tackler and powerful ball carrier, Messam will have to be at his best at the breakdown on Saturday, otherwise the youthful Cane could find himself overpowered by the colossal Springbok pack.
There was a time when Morne Steyn was the unquestioned number two fly half in the world, playing second fiddle only to the illustrious Dan Carter. He was pushing the All Black hard for the top spot, but his form has dipped considerably over the last couple of years, and it is only now that he is beginning to regain that form that almost took him all the way to the top. An unerring goal-kicker, Steyn’s playmaking ability and distribution skills will be under scrutiny this weekend, as he will have to make the most of every opportunity that his forwards give him, especially if the Boks want to end their 76 year wait for a victory at Eden Park.
Head-to-head: Tony Woodcock vs Jannie du Plessis
This match-up pits the most experienced All Black forward on the pitch, against perhaps the most underrated South African forward of his generation, in a tussle of brawn, brains, and sheer brute force. Given that he plays in a front row with Tendai Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis, it’s easy to understand why Jannie often gets overlooked, but there is no questioning that he is one of the world’s top tighthead props. If he can get on top of Woodcock in the game’s opening salvoes, then it will go a long way towards giving the Boks the set piece dominance that they crave, and consequently allow them to unleash their dynamic back line. Woodcock, on the other hand, will know that if the All Black front row tries to go to head-to-head with their South African counterparts physically, they will likely come off second best, and if they are to emerge victorious on Saturday, they will need to outsmart them, starting with Woodcock himself.
The history books say this should be a New Zealand victory, but I can’t ignore South Africa’s form coming into this game, with their dismantling of Australia in Brisbane (another venue where history dictated they were likely to lose) in the forefront of my mind. The game should go right down to wire, but I can see the Springboks stealing this one. South Africa by 3.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)