With no disrespect to the Lions or Australia, Saturday’s showdown at Ellis Park between South Africa and New Zealand is surely the Test of the year. The two best teams in the world, a bear-pit of a stadium, the Rugby Championship title on the line, the injustice of Auckland still crackling in the air – these are ingredients that, if mixed properly, will make an incredible spectacle. The prospect is made all the more sweeter by the fact that the Boks need a try bonus point if they are to claim the title, while also denying the All Blacks a losing one. With so much on the line, there could barely be a worse time to have to worry about tries as well as the win. South Africa have only won once against New Zealand since 2009, but if there is anywhere in the world that the visitors will feel least comfortable, it is Ellis Park.
The hosts have formed such a cohesive and diverse unit under Heyneke Meyer that they have separated themselves from the rest of the pack chasing the All Blacks. They may not quite be at the world champions’ level yet in terms of their all-round game, but they are not far off. The pack is as powerful a unit as you will see, and under the new scrummaging laws they have, if possible, become even more formidable at the set piece. Beast Mtarawira, in particular, is in sublime form. Behind the scrum Fourie du Preez looked back to his best last weekend – his tactical nous and zip of pass are second to none, and he just seems to know where the space is. Morne Steyn is even starting to attack a bit more, although there are still times when he could stand flatter. In the wider channels all the talk is of New Zealand’s weapons, but no-one averages more metres per carry (63) than Willie le Roux. His duel with Savea will be great to watch.
The World Champions come into this game in great form, with a superb recent record against the Boks, and yet there is a sense that, for the first time in a while, they are the underdogs. Ever since the iconic 1995 World Cup final, Ellis Park has become a special kind of fortress for the Springboks and the All Blacks will know exactly the type of reception they will receive. The place they could be found out is up front. Until his unfortunate sending off a few weeks ago, Bismarck du Plessis had bullied young Dane Coles, enough so that he starts on the bench this week. Andrew Hore, his replacement, is far too experienced to be intimidated by Bismarck, but it is nonetheless a psychological victory for the Boks. If they can gain parity in the set piece – which is a big ask – they look better on paper in most other positions. Richie McCaw returns, and you can never understate his influence. He has made the most tackles and second most carries per game for the Kiwis so far, and alongside Kieran Read and Liam Messam they boast the best loose forward trio in world rugby by some margin.
All Eyes On
After the controversy surrounding the return fixture a few weeks ago in Auckland, Bismarck du Plessis will be in the spotlight no matter what happens. The abrasive hooker’s unfair dismissal has wound South African fans up no end (to the point where some of it was, frankly, disturbing and inappropriate), and as if this game needed any more spice the manner in which he conducts himself will be fascinating to watch. He is as abrasive a player as they come, but you wonder if the All Blacks might try to rile him up, just to see what happens.
The focus might well be on the All Blacks’ returning skipper McCaw, but the man who stood in in his (and Carter’s) absence last week, Kieran Read, has been in exemplary form this championship. He managed to lead a team that was lacking several experienced and inspirational characters to a convincing win in Argentina – not an easy place to play at the best of times. He is the epitome of an all round back-row player – he carries strongly, tackles hard, never stops running and, through several deft offloads and neat passes, links the forwards and backs superbly well.
Head to head: Jean de Villers v Ma’a Nonu
To reach a 50 cap partnership is a stat anyone would be proud of, given the vagaries of international rugby, and so Nonu and Conrad Smith’s effort is highly commendable. Nonu is certainly the more obvious of the two, and his development as a rugby player (on the international stage, at least) has been superb to watch. Once considered a one-dimensional battering-ram, he has added a huge amount to his game to the point where he is a quality distributor – witness the sleight of hand for a delayed pass to put Ben Smith in last weekend against Argentina. He has also developed a well-honed kicking game.
The Springbok captain is a leader of men, and one of the most inspirational men around on a rugby pitch. He may not possess the pace of old, but still has an eye for a gap and can pick some brilliant lines. His is a supremely important role this weekend, as the Boks will need not only his physicality to tame Ma’a Nonu, but also his intelligence and experience to keep ‘Snake Hips’ Conrad Smith in check, especially with easily the least experienced centre on the pitch outside him.
It is tough to think of a game in recent history as difficult as this one to call. The Springboks are looking like a genuinely world-class team again, and at Ellis Park, spurred on by a crowd buoyed by the injustice in Auckland, they will be a formidable outfit. Expect them to go out to win the game first and foremost – the psychological boost that would give them in years to come is worth far more than this year’s Rugby Championship trophy. The thing is, it is so difficult to write off the All Blacks. It would be typical of them to raise their game and silence the Ellis Park crowd. Given the opposition and the situation, I’m not sure if backing the world champions in a game like this really counts as a ‘safe bet’ – but, with the returning McCaw at the helm, that’s what I’m going for anyway. New Zealand by 2.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images