Old foes New Zealand and South Africa go head to head in Wellington this weekend in the entree to the highly anticipated Rugby World Cup opening pool B fixture on 21 September.
The importance of this match has been shown by the Springboks sending 13 players over to Wellington a week early to prepare. By contrast, the All Blacks haven’t sent many members of the Crusaders over to Argentina.
Here are five key match-ups for the fixture:
1. Coaches: Steve Hansen versus Rassie Erasmus
As mentioned above, both coaches strategically decided to rest a number of key players last week to ensure both teams will be fresh for this game.
The psychological battle between these two coaches is a key match-up as both will be underplaying their tactics to keep something up their sleeve for the big show in September. A win will give both coaches a slight smile knowing there are bigger stakes to come at the World Cup.
Erasmus and his Springboks team will have the belief that they can come to Wellington and repeat their thrilling victory of last year at the same venue. The 36-34 victory in 2018 was built around great line speed on defence, a strong rolling maul and capitalising on All Black errors to score tries.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has already said the Rugby Championship is at the bottom of their priorities in 2019 behind the Bledisloe Cup and World Cup. This is shown in his selections, including resting in-form loose forward Ardie Savea. Has he also got people guessing with Beauden Barrett being selected at fullback.
2. Hookers: Malcolm Marx versus Codie Taylor
South African hooker Malcolm Marx in 2017 in Cape Town had one of the most impressive games by a hooker against the All Blacks. He scored a try, had a try assist and won numerous turnovers at the breakdown. Another display like this on the weekend will be instrumental if the Boks want to get their consecutive road wins against the All Blacks.
Marx will also be a key figure in any rolling maul drives close to the opposition line. He has a good habit of scoring in that position. The All Blacks will need to show the same type of maul defence like in the closing seconds of their game against the Pumas on the week.
All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor had a breakout season in 2018, starting regularly due to Dane Coles being injured. Taylor had limited game time for the Crusaders this season due to a broken finger, but he managed to come back fit at the business end of the season. He is fresh for this Test as he did not travel to Argentina. With three tries in seven appearances against South Africa, Taylor, if given the opportunity, should roam in the tramlines where he is an effective ball runner.
3. Locks: Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert versus Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick
The South African duo of Etzebeth and Mostert is a well-balanced pairing, with Etzebeth providing the muscle on the ground with his strong upper body as well as being an experienced player set to play his 77th test. His contests with Sam Whitelock are a throwback to the rivalry these two nations historically have on the rugby field.
Mostert is a great lineout operator and was one of Super Rugby’s leading lineout thieves in years gone by (16 steals in 2017) before joining English club Gloucester. He will look to target the All Blacks lineout if they show any shakiness like in the second half against Argentina.
The All Blacks lock duo of Whitelock and Retallick will start their 51st Test match on Saturday. Both men will be primed for this Test as they thrive in matches against the Springboks. Whitelock will be very formidable in the tight and in the lineout should help the All Blacks secure clean ball. With 108 caps to his name, his experience will be crucial.
After scoring an intercept try last week Retallick is back to his trademark strides in open play. The 2.04-metre lock has missed the last three Tests against the Springboks due to injury and personal reasons. The ‘Guzzler’ is going to be eager to put on another world-class display as he did in their thrashing of the Boks in 2017 at Albany.
4. Inside centres: Damian de Allende versus Sonny Bill Williams
South African midfielder De Allende will start his 38th Test match on Saturday. Often used as a battering ram to crash in the midfield, we do not often get to see his full range of skills.
In Super Rugby this season De Allende showed more to his game than his traditional direct approach, including a willingness to create space for his outside backs. An impressive showing in this game will improve his chances of becoming the first choice No. 12 for the Springboks at the World Cup
The polarising Sonny Bill Williams makes his long-awaited return to professional rugby on Saturday. After a bad injury run and only playing six games for the Blues this season the 33-year-old will take some time adjusting to rigours of international rugby. He will look for early touches with the ball and make some of his trademark offloads. With a number of midfield backs pushing for World Cup spots, the pressure will be on Sonny Bill Williams to perform and stay free from injury.
He will be under a lot of pressure from the South African defence and will need to ensure he is composed on when to offload in the tackle especially early on in the match.
5. South Africa kicking game versus New Zealand backfield
With Beauden Barrett starting at fullback on the weekend South Africa needs to be mindful on how they kick to the New Zealand backfield. Barrett is a good leaper in the air which will nullify the South African kick pressure game from box kicks. The All Blacks struggled under the high ball against Argentina and should get a strong aerial barrage by the Springboks early on.
South Africa’s general play kickers such as Handre Pollard need to kick into open space and make Barrett retrieve kicks under pressure with a strong chase. The New Zealand back three of Barrett, Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane will look to link together to launch counterattacks if there is space and mismatches are found.
All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga is an effective counter attacker that uses his great vision and footwork. Mo’unga also has great game management and will hang back in the backfield to return kicks into better field position with his kicking game.
Coach Hansen told the New Zealand Herald, “We’ve got a plan for a whole lot of things we want to do before the nitty-gritty business and we just felt Saturday’s game is the right time to try that particular part of the plan” when discussing the Mo’unga/Barrett combination.
The last three winning margins between these two great rivals have been one point, two points and two points. South Africa has the muscle in the forward pack and the belief they can win in New Zealand. The All Blacks welcome back some seasoned pros for this fixture and have two of their most skilled players on the field at the same time. The All Blacks will win by four points in a classic.
Roarers, what do you think?