On match day, if you walk up from Auckland’s piers through the parks and down the high road, past All Black festooned petrol stations and hardware shops and pubs, you find yourself at a bridge, across the railroad, and you see Eden Park.
Most fans stop and look before making the winding descent over to the field. Once inside, the stadium is unremarkable.
It is not as big as you might expect. But it is the biggest stadium in New Zealand (50,000 capacity, expandable to 60,000).
If it is cold, you will be cold. If it is wet, you will get wet. It is dark. So many of the spectators wear black. Auckland is often overcast. The city is not lit up like so many other metropolises. The grass is such a dark green.
And then there are the ghosts. All those great and hard New Zealanders that have played here from 1900, and mostly won.
This is the home of All Black rugby, spiritually and legally. This is where they have won their two World Cups.
The first Test played at Eden Park was between the Springboks and the All Blacks. The Boks won 9-5 in front of 40,000 people. In 1937, South Africa won again (17-6) to go 2-0 at this park.
There have been seven other Eden Park encounters between these two rugby heavyweights; New Zealand have won six of those; the sides drew 18-18 in 1994. The Eden Park ledger between number one and number two is 6-2-1 in favour of the home side.
In 1981, as anti-apartheid protests rocked the city, a small plane dropped flour bombs on the field.
Eight people were hit by the bombs; including All Black prop Gary Knight. This is a ground with history baked into the earth.
There is nowhere on earth that South Africa covets a victory more. Back in Africa, the Boks have one venue at which New Zealand have never won: Port Elizabeth (4-0). In Johannesburg and Durban, the All Blacks typically lose.
Winning at home in South Africa is one thing. Taking the All Blacks’ scalp at Eden Park is another entirely.
On Saturday, the two old enemies take the field and test each other yet again.
The prevailing wisdom is that New Zealand’s coaches are too smart, their forwards too quick to the breakdown, their ball skills too silky, their backs too devastating on counter-attack, their fitness unparalleled, and their winning attitude too much for their physical, yet one-dimensional and weary visitors.
The Boks have flown from South Africa to Argentina (and some to France, then) to Australia, and now to Auckland.
But along the way, they’ve slain some dragons. They broke their hoodoos in Mendoza and Brisbane. They played champagne rugby for Mandela, in Soweto.
Their style in Brisbane is the one that gives New Zealand trouble (if the exponents are the physical specimens the Boks are).
Still, South Africa knows they can win The Rugby Championship despite a loss in New Zealand, while the banged-up All Blacks cannot lose at home before going to a very difficult tour to Africa and South America.
Thus, the bookies and the rugby world will still classify the Boks as underdogs. And so, they are. How could they not be?
It’s Eden Park. The reigning world champions. The All Blacks are always favoured at home.
But I have a feeling this Saturday will see the Springboks’ third win at Eden Park.
Why? I say that the Boks (1) are in better recent form; (2) have as good a set of players as New Zealand; (3) have the right game plan to upset New Zealand; (4) have a coach they believe in; and (5) are a very good mix of seasoned and young; but all are hungry.
The form guide is rather simple. South Africa looked better against England at Twickenham (the All Blacks were hammered physically); against Argentina, at home (9 tries to 1), than New Zealand did (a laboring win); and against Australia (the Boks got the bonus point in Australia and it could easily have been worse, but for a couple of handling errors).
The Bok pack looked more powerful than the All Black forwards against Argentina. And Morne Steyn looks like he is having one of those sweet-striking, huge range, kind of seasons; the All Blacks have been a bit disjointed at the number ten playmaker.
2. The players
There are six groups of players in a Test rugby match:
• The front row
• The locks
• The loose trio
• The halfback duo
• The centers
• The back three
There is very little to choose from, between the two rivals, even with both teams missing half a dozen top-flight players, each.
Front Row (edge – Springboks)
South Africa has the edge here. Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, and Beast Mtatawira look like the new scrum rules were designed for them. Around the park, Bismarck has been like an extra loose forward.
Their replacements, Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss, and Gurthrö Steenkamp are actually bigger as a trio, and Strauss is in the form of his life.
Literally, Bismarck and Strauss are the consensus top two hookers in the world.
New Zealand has an accomplished group of front-rowers to choose from: Ben Franks, Charlie Faumunia, Tony Woodcock, and Wyatt Crockett.
They did not look as comfortable as the Boks did against the Argentine scrum machine (and did not massacre the Wallabies’ front row as comprehensively as the Springboks did).
But it’s at number two that South Africa has the edge. Andrew Hore is busy at ruck-time, but both he and Dane Coles are wobbly at line-out time (this is not evident against Argentina, who do not challenge in the air), and simply don’t match-up well with the Boks’ abrasive hookers, who carry the ball with speed and power, and are game-changers.
South Africa has one complete lock, as does New Zealand. Eben Etzebeth is very young, but he ticks all the boxes for a world XV lock: at line-out, he takes and steals, at scrum, he is fantastically strong, in the tight-loose, he is a big scary monster, in the loose, he can gallop and handle, and he can play all 80 minutes.
But you can say the very same things about Sam Whitelock, except Whitelock is even better in open play, and maybe not as strong as Etzebeth in mauls or the tackle. Who isn’t looking forward to Etzebeth versus Whitelock? I doubt either will take a backward step.
So it comes down to the other guys in the second row. South Africa can start Juandré Kruger, a lanky athlete who is mostly a line-out expert and open-play man (he snagged Bryan Habana’s chip kick, one-handed, at speed, to create Jean de Villiers’ try against Australia); or bring the grunt with Flip van der Merwe (also good at line-out, but more of a coal-face miner than a footballer).
New Zealand has Brodie Retaillack, Jeremy Thrush, and Luke Romano to complement Whitelock; they force the same sort of mongrel versus skill-man choice.
This is a wash, with the wild card being the maul. The Boks set up mauls better than anyone but the All Blacks collapse them best.
Loose Forwards (edge – Springboks, only because McCaw is absent)
No loose trio is playing as cohesively as the Boks’ back three right now.
At number eight, Kieren Read is the only man outplaying the Boks’ physical, but smart Duane Vermuelen.
But as a unit, the combination of Vermuelen, Willem Alberts, and Francois Louw is in top form.
Alberts crosses the gain line every time, and with Richie McCaw out, Louw should have the experience and heft to trump Sam Cane on the deck.
New Zealand has a tough call between Liam Messam and Steven Luatua (a revelation). I’m guessing Messam will be used, to try to stop the blunt force trauma of Alberts and Luatua will come on when the game opens up.
I think the real advantage in the loosies is on defence. I don’t think the All Blacks have played as good a defensive squad as the Boks, in a while (since 2009?) Vermuelen-Alberts-Louw can really bring the wood; and drive back the big Kiwi ball-carriers.
They’ll even get to Carter and Nonu at times.
This is an edge for South Africa, but only due to McCaw’s injury.
Halfbacks (clear New Zealand superiority)
The only advantage at nine/ten that South Africa has is goal-kicking and punting power of Morne Steyn and Ruan Pienaar.
Dan Carter and Aaron Smith are a lethal duo. Aaron Smith in particular (as are all other Smiths in the team) is playing out of his mind. His quickness will give the pedestrian Pienaar problems.
His box kicks are getting better. He is a real fighter on defence. Dan Carter is Dan Carter.
South Africa cannot match these two players, without Fourie du Preez back in South Africa, a prisoner of his Japanese club contract.
All that Steyn and Pienaar can do is make their tackles (they are solid), be accurate kicking out of hand and off the tee, and use quick ball.
This is the matrix of the New Zealand game plan, and even if Carter limps off, Beauden Barrett can fit right in.
Midfield (edge – All Blacks)
South Africa have a national treasure: the classy, big, opportunistic, safe-as-houses Jean de Villiers.
But they have defensively-questionable JJ Engelbrecht at 13, with super-young Jan Serfontein as the replacement.
The All Blacks have their own national treasure, Conrad Smith, who just doesn’t make mistakes in Tests, and Ma’a Nonu, the barbarian, in a combination that is balanced and ultra-dangerous.
I think Francis Saili looks even better than Nonu, but probably isn’t ready for this cauldron yet.
De Villiers knows how to corral Nonu (you tackle him high, not low); but I think Engelbrecht will struggle to contain Conrad’s darts and passes to the wing.
The Boks can be punctured directly in the middle, if a key tackle is missed, or if Carter can kick behind the defensive line.
This is where Engelbrecht’s inexperience may hurt South Africa. On the other hand, I think JJ has a big pace advantage on Conrad, as well as size.
This could decide the whole thing; but you’d have to give New Zealand the edge, here. Oh, how Jaque Fourie is missed.
The back three (edge – All Blacks)
The All Blacks trot out dangerous Julian Savea (how can he be that strong and fast?) and try-poacher Ben Smith on the wings, and the best fullback in the world, Israel Dagg. It’s hard to imagine any back three being better.
South Africa has an argument that Bryan Habana will be the best wing on the field, but the remainder of their back three, Zane Kirchner and Willie le Roux cannot make a similar claim.
I would rather have the fine footballer Pat Lambie start at 15, because I think Carter will cross the field with long, intelligently angled kicks. But Kirchner probably won’t let his side down.
He just cannot really make New Zealand pay for bad kicks.
All of South Africa believes in the magic of le Roux. The stage is set for him to become a legend, by lighting up dark Eden Park. But until we see that, the superb Dagg makes the All Blacks better in this group.
3. Game Plan
An arm-wrestle, with smashing force from big ball-carriers, and pressurised punts high in the sky for 40-50 minutes. A moment of magic.
A couple of errors by the home side, or a sliver of a chance for the clinical Boks. A maul close to the line. A 45-meter penalty. This is the basic plan. And it is the right plan.
Getting into a 35-32 shootout with New Zealand is a crapshoot that the Boks usually lose. A 17-6 or 20-9 score line, with a lot of line-outs and scrums, is what the Boks want and need.
Nobody has coaches as good as New Zealand. Their scrum coach is superb. Their attack gurus really understand space and mismatches. Their head coach is obviously great at man management.
In contrast, South Africa’s coaching is rarely up to the standard of its incredible players.
Meyer may not be a technical genius. But he brings passion and belief and no shame in South African rugby philosophy.
The players absolutely love him. The Bok coaching team is not as good as New Zealand’s, but it is so much better than its predecessors. This is almost a wash, now.
5. Young, Old, and Hungry
Seven Bok players in the match day squad for Brisbane were 23 or younger. This young and hungry group set a record for a South African win in Australia. They’re so young, they don’t believe in statistics or history.
But South Africa also has grizzled veterans on the team, like de Villiers, Habana, Pienaar, the du Plessis brothers, and the late bloomer Vermuelen.
There are five or six potential captains in the team; Louw captains Bath, Strauss leads the Cheetahs, Pienaar has captained Ulster, Bismarck has been Sharks captain, and Vermuelen has led the Stormers.
The wonderful thing is that guys like Habana run, and chase, and tackle as hard now, as ever.
This Bok team will lay siege to Eden Park, and colour it green and gold; and win fame with their valor.
South Africa 17 New Zealand 9