While New Zealand have shrugged off suggestions of travel fatigue, assistant coach Ian Foster admits the reserves could play a decisive role, reports JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
The All Blacks are coming off a particularly gruelling schedule that has seen them travelling from New Zealand to Argentina and from Argentina to South Africa in the space of a week.
They arrived in Johannesburg on Monday morning, and in their first encounter with the local press they were bombarded with questions regarding travel fatigue and the energy-sapping effects of altitude.
Perhaps the All Blacks should point to their recent achievements on the highveld rather than dignify these questions with an answer. They endured the same schedule in 2012 when they travelled from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg for their sixth and final game of the tournament, and still managed to thump the Boks 32-16. The game staged at Soccer City in 2010 was also won by the All Blacks, although the scoreline was far tighter at 29-22.
It was in the 2010 Test that the All Blacks' bench made the difference. The Boks had dominated the All Blacks physically for much of the contest and had built a handy lead. But in the final quarter, the All Blacks hit back with two quick tries, reserve winger Israel Dagg finishing the final score that clinched the result.
On Tuesday, Foster played down the influence of travel fatigue as well as the effects of altitude. He said that the team would prepare as they did in 2010 and 2012 in the hope that they would secure yet another big win on the highveld.
What Foster did concede is that another sort of fatigue could take its toll on Saturday. It's been a long season for every player competing in Super Rugby and the subsequent Rugby Championship. Saturday's finale at Ellis Park will determine whether it's the Boks or the All Blacks who have the legs for that final push.
'It's a good point,' he said. 'This is the final round, not only of the tournament, but on the back of a long Super Rugby season. It's at this point of the year whern your bench becomes more important.
'We saw that in La Plata,' Foster added, referring to the All Blacks' recent game against Argentina. 'Our bench gave us something extra in those final 25 minutes.'
The All Blacks battled for much of that fixture, scoring just one try in the first half. In the second stanza, however, they benefited from the introduction of fresh legs and scored three more tries to secure the bonus point and take control at the top of the Rugby Championship log.
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw hasn't played for a month due to a knee injury, but is expected to return to the starting line-up for the tournament decider. Foster said he wasn't sure if McCaw would last the full 80 minutes, which suggests a player like Sam Cane may have to finish the game.
The same applies to the Boks, who will need to make full use of their reserve bench if they hope to realise their bonus-point ambition.
The decision of when to introduce the substitutes by coaches Heyneke Meyer and Steve Hansen will also be key.
Photo: Anthony Au-Young/Getty Images
Du Toit’s making a statement
Pieter-Steph du Toit has built on an impressive rookie season to become another in a growing line of exciting Springbok prospects, writes RYAN VREDE.
Five Saffas going Down Under
JEREMY PROOME looks at five South African players who have joined an Australian Super Rugby side for 2014.
SA Rugby mag’s Test awards
JON CARDINELLI applauds the outstanding individuals, teams and moments of the 2013 Test season.