Boks just another challenge for All Blacks
October 3, 2013
The All Blacks collected more silverware in La Plata © Getty Images
Test matches like The Rugby Championship decider between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park in Johannesburg - where the top two sides in the world will meet with many things on the line - are a rare thing. But with so much on the line, I'm guessing the Rugby Championship title, while of great importance to all southern hemisphere sides, is not the be-all and end-all for the All Blacks and South Africa.
Such is the strength and depth of New Zealand rugby that Sam Cane is benched for Richie McCaw despite his standout game against Argentina © Getty Images
Since Rugby World Cup 2011, the All Blacks have gone from strength to strength. It appears they have forged ahead of all the other major rugby nations and are building a dynasty that could be very difficult to topple; the quality of the All Blacks' play has been so that high other teams are searching for a way to keep up.
The Springboks of the 2013 vintage have given themselves every opportunity to challenge the All Blacks, however. Not only with their apparent dominance but also the way they play the game. There's no doubt the South Africans are, in a sense, a one-dimensional team. But that dimension, in its simplicity, is for me their biggest strength. The Springboks' history in the game has always been about their relentless physicality, and it would be fair to say their rugby has suffered when they have gone away from this approach. Under Heyneke Meyer, they have returned to their roots and the only barrier left to overcome is the All Blacks - as it always has been.
The Springboks have destroyed many a team up front. Their accuracy and brutality at the set-piece is second to none, and they must rely once again on their strength if they are to beat the All Blacks. The altitude at Johannesburg gives their kicking game both extra distance and also extra hang time on their contestable kicks. They will play field position, they will look to build pressure and accumulate points. It is a simple recipe that, particularly at Ellis Park, has been a foil for the All Blacks. New Zealand last won in Johannesburg in 1997 - they have lost four of their past five Tests at Ellis Park - and they know what to expect. That's not to say the Springboks won't want to keep the ball in hand. They have shown willingness, when in the right parts of the field, to attack on the outside channel, particularly against Australia, and they have been very effective.
The All Blacks go into this Test as favourites, and deservedly so. They have met any challenge they have faced this season, at times in difficult circumstances, finding the right ways to win. Such games breed confidence. They grow self-belief. If there were any question marks over the All Blacks this year, most of them have been answered. Younger players continue to make an impact, the senior players continue to do their job, and the on-field leadership has been as strong as ever.
This game in South Africa will mean a lot to the All Blacks as they continue to stamp their mark as the world's No.1 side, and, as the mid-year campaign comes to a close, they want to keep alive their perfect season. The match also offers an opportunity like no other as the All Blacks are still looking to win a World Cup away from home, because there are very few opportunities to play under World Cup-like conditions in the four years between the big events. A rugby cauldron, Ellis Park harbours South Africa's most passionate fans. With its unique conditions, and the Rugby Championship at stake, it may be the All Blacks' most difficult challenge.
There's only one negative for me as we go into this tremendous occasion.
The fact The Rugby Championship can be decided by a bonus point is a great disappointment. With only six games for each team and variability of weather conditions, I don't believe this competition balances itself in regards to the opportunity for every team to earn bonus points. This is Test-match football, where keeping the game close, or playing for a bonus-point try, should almost be irrelevant. Do you think the All Blacks will be satisfied lifting the trophy even if they lose at the weekend? What's so wrong with two teams holding the trophy aloft at the end of the day? These contests should be about winning and losing.
Eben Etzebeth and the Springboks will play to their strengths in Johannesburg © Getty Images
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