This weekend sees the 100th Test between South Africa and New Zealand as one of the sports oldest rivalries once more takes centre stage. However, put aside all the history and forgive us if we have concerns that there is the danger that this match may simply not live up to the hype surrounding it. Sure the Springboks are reigning World Champions, and let’s face it few predicted them to win the World Cup based on their form heading into it – but win it they did. However, there is no denying that the back to back defeats to Australia showed some rather ominous chinks in the armor. We’ve tried to stay out of the arguments surrounding the Springboks “boring” style of rugby, but there is no denying that against Australia they looked very one-dimensional and thin on creativity with some glaring holes in their defense which looked ponderous at best.
New Zealand is a complete contrast and at the moment seem unstoppable with this year’s Championship all but done and dusted in favor of the Men in Black. They’re not perfect, but the sum of their parts is so much better than everyone else they’ve faced so far this year. Defensively they look sound, their execution is for the most part water tight and when it comes to creativity they would appear to be in a class of their own.
While New Zealand are clearly the favorites for Saturday’s clash by a comfortable margin, South Africa somehow manage to raise their game for encounters with the old enemy whatever their form leading up to the match. There will be plenty of pride at stake for a match with this kind of historical significance. Sure there have been some hidings in this fixture in the past (let’s just forget that 57-0 drubbing in 2017 – not much game raising going on that day). Yes we can all agree that so far this year the Springboks have given those who say they don’t travel well, plenty of ammunition, but this is still one of the game’s great teams with a very proud history and rather impressive track record. While their recent Lions series victory may now have lost some of its shine, along with beating Argentina twice given the sorry state of the Pumas at present, South Africa are given the talent at their disposal still a top level team. However, it would appear that there is a certain degree of conservatism and lack of creativity taking hold in how they approach the game and Jacques Nienaber is definitely no Rassie Erasmus – whether or not that’s a good thing depends on who you talk to.
South Africa face a very daunting task on Saturday, but we’re hoping despite their current difficulties that there is one big game left in them this Championship and this weekend is the time to deliver it. New Zealand meanwhile will not take the challenge lightly no matter what the bookies are saying, and as a result we’re hoping that this game lives up to its calling.
Missing his better half?
If things don’t go well for South Africa on Saturday, then you have to feel for Springbok Coach Jacques Nienaber. His countrymen will ultimately judge him by how well he fares against South Africa’s greatest rival. Sure a Lions series is a feather in his cap, but beating New Zealand means everything to South African rugby fans – all the rest is just gravy, even to some extent winning the World Cup. If South Africa can’t compete against the All Blacks then it’s akin to a national tragedy.
During the Lions series, Nienaber had the benefit of having Rassie Erasmus either in the background or more directly on the pitch ensuring that the players were adequately hydrated. However, in Australia he is without that influence and you can’t help getting the feeling that he is somewhat out of his depth without his old mentor. Saturday’s performance will likely define the rest of his Coaching tenure and how he is perceived by both the team and the rugby public at home. The pressure must be immense as a poor showing will essentially cast him out into the wilderness, as it did for his predecessors.
For us the jury is still out, but we have to confess to becoming increasingly concerned at the fact that new talent is not being blooded and a game plan that is rapidly being found out and exposed is being stuck to doggedly. There’s lots of talk about structures and working on developing the Springboks style of play but so far in 2021 we’ve seen very little if any evidence of it, leaving Nienaber with a growing number of uncomfortable questions to answer come post match press conferences. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now – but to say that he’s the man in the hotseat on Saturday is likely to be one of the biggest understatements of 2021.
Where is the fire?
Until recently any team knew they were playing South Africa whenever Eben Etzebeth was on the pitch in a green jersey, but against Australia we struggled to notice the giant second rower. He was definitely off the boil against the Wallabies, and seemed almost ineffective. That quiet smoldering aggression that is his trademark just wasn’t there. In short, he just didn’t look like he was enjoying himself and when that happens South Africa tend to unravel. He’s the kind of player that is an indicator of how well the rest of the team are likely to do. If he plays well then South Africa are likely to be winning the physical battles which they tend to have a history of dominating, but if he’s having an off day as he clearly did in both matches against Australia the Springboks lose a vital edge to their character and with it their resolve. He clearly doesn’t gel with Marvin Orie, and it’s hoped that back with his more regular second row partner Lood de Jager he’ll be back to his fire and brimstone best on Saturday. Against New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett he’s going to need it.
New Zealand’s future is there for all to see
While South Africa’s offerings in the back row are impressive, we don’t feel like we’re looking at the future. However, New Zealand’s contingent at number eight and on the blindside on Saturday, speak volumes of how they want their back row play to develop, all shored up by the able figure of Captain and veteran openside flanker Ardie Savea. In number eight Luke Jacobson and flanker Akira Ioane, New Zealand are laying down markers for the next World Cup and beyond. Luke Jacobson had an absolute blinder against Argentina in their first Test against the Pumas running in two outstanding tries. Meanwhile Ioane tag teaming with Ardie Savea has been a complete wrecking ball when it comes to dealing with opposition defences. We are really struggling to see how South Africa is going to gain any kind of parity against the Kiwi trio on Saturday.
Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi has shown plenty of effort but often poorly channeled at times especially against Australia. While veteran Duane Vermeulen made an impressive return against Australia in their first Test, there was no denying that the 35 year old looked distinctly out of puff in the second Test. With only a week’s turnaround you have to wonder how much is left in the old warhorse’s tank to deal with New Zealand’s rampaging trio. Lastly as much as we admire Kwagga Smith, the form he showed in Super Rugby has really never materialized in a Springbok jersey and we’re just not sure he’s got the stature needed to contain the physical presence of New Zealand’s Akira Ioane.
Two class acts but sadly only one of them is doing the talking right now
We’ve been hard pressed to understand Springbok fly half Handre Pollard’s serious drop in form. Sure his goal kicking can be erratic but then so can Beauden Barrett’s. However, it’s his playmaking that looks so unassured at the moment, compared to Barrett who just isn’t missing a beat as usual. Pollard has always lacked consistency in his execution and decision making, traits that Barrett simply doesn’t suffer from. When Pollard is on song as in the World Cup final there are few that can touch him, the problem is that those days simply don’t happen often enough. He is not shy of the physical nature of the game and can often be seen hurling himself against defenses. Compare that to Barrett who appears to size up the field of play first and takes his chances when he sees them. As a result these are two players with very contrasting play styles. Expect to see Pollard relishing the go forward opportunities created by his forwards but rarely breaking the gain line, while Barrett’s lightning quick reflexes leave defenders guessing giving him lots of room to make plenty of unopposed meters.
We’re not suggesting for a second that Pollard should attempt to beat Barrett at his own game. Barrett’s style of play would simply look out of place on Pollard. Instead the South African just needs to become more involved than he was against Australia and get the kind of confidence back that served him so well in the World Cup final. If he has a good game on Saturday then so will South Africa.
A bit like a French team – which de Klerk and le Roux will we get on Saturday?
We rate both these players very highly and both can be game changers on the day. However, fullback Willie le Roux is clearly starting to show that he is nearing the end of his time in the 15 jersey as the inconsistencies in his game that plagued his early career are starting to return with a vengeance. Meanwhile, Faf de Klerk who traditionally has been the player most likely to get South Africa out of jail, is starting to show the same tendencies when it comes to consistency. There is no denying he had a poor game in the Springboks second defeat to Australia, and more worrying for South Africa as their setbacks increase de Klerk seems to slide backwards with them. Once the feisty, impetuous imp he is starting to look more like a difficult teenager. We still rate him and let’s face it South Africa are fairly bereft of choice when it comes to a quality nine, but perhaps that has led to complacency and a slight touch of arrogance on de Klerk’s part – qualities he needs to address quickly and which his team can ill afford.
As for le Roux, New Zealand know if they can rattle him his composure goes out the window in a heartbeat and as a result he’ll have a big target on his back on Saturday. If the All Blacks can unhinge South Africa at the back, then they become vulnerable very quickly and le Roux’s nerves will be key in how the Springboks fare against an inevitable aerial assault.
Above all we really hope that this Test match, given its historical significance will be one we remember for all the right reasons and a proper contest. We don’t want to get drawn into the assumptions currently being made that this match is going to quickly turn into a one sided affair in favor of the All Blacks. Like we say South Africa always find something special in the tank for an encounter with New Zealand, and although they may be reeling from their losses to Australia, they haven’t become a bad team overnight. They may not be the form team that they were only a month or so ago, but a Springbok/All Black Test match is always something special and we are approaching it with an open mind until referee Luke Pearce blows the final whistle.
So put aside your betting algorithms, ignore all the pundits who admittedly know infinitely more than we do – get together with some mates and enjoy a round of one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries whatever the outcome. In short may the best side win whoever that turns out to be!!!