The Springboks' breakdown performance will determine whether or not they realise their bonus-point ambitions, reports JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
The Boks have improved since Heyneke Meyer took charge in early 2012. One of Meyer's primary aims at the start of this season was to address the shortcomings at the rucks and collisions and to close the gap between the Boks and All Blacks.
Bok forwards coach Johann van Graan told SARugbymag.co.za after the first Test against Italy that the team was not yet at the point where they could match the All Blacks at the breakdown. Three months on, it's clear the Boks have caught up.
While there have been examples of where the Boks have got it wrong, namely the performances against Scotland in Nelspruit and against Argentina in Mendoza, the side has largely improved and is well placed to tackle the trend-setting All Blacks in this area.
Indeed, it's at the breakdown where the Boks will need to dominate if they are to have any chance of recording a bonus-point victory and winning the Castle Rugby Championship.
Van Graan is clearly more confident about the Boks' prospects than he was several months ago. On Tuesday, the Bok forwards coach explained where the team has improved.
'Defensively, we managed to win eight breakdown turnovers against the All Blacks at Eden Park, which is a huge plus,' he said. 'If you look at last weekend [when the Boks played the Wallabies at Newlands], when guys like Gurthrö Steenkamp and Jean de Villiers are turning over ball, that's where you want to be. We've made a change in mentality in that all 23 players must be able to make the right decision at the breakdown.'
In 2013, the Boks have scored a large percentage of their tries from turnover ball. No doubt the recent performances and the comments made by Van Graan indicate that they will back themselves on the counter-attack at Ellis Park.
But, as head coach Heyneke Meyer said on Monday, the Boks will need to take the initiative in Saturday's Test if they hope to secure the vital bonus point. Again, it comes down to a winning performance at the breakdown.
On attack, the Boks will need to be accurate and prevent the likes of Richie McCaw from slowing the recycling of possession. Quick ball will be key if the Boks want to fracture the All Blacks defence and score tries.
'We had 100 breakdowns on our own ball last weekend and we managed to win 96 of those,' said Van Graan. 'It's not perfect, but it's pretty good.
'We want to get to 100%. When you play the All Blacks, you look at their players: Richie McCaw, Liam Messam, Sam Cane, and even a guy like Brodie Retallick is a massive nuisance at the breakdown. Tony Woodcock, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, they're all very good.
'Then there is Julian Savea with the counter-ruck in the wider channels. So we've planned well, we've still got two training sessions left and we realise the All Blacks will pose a massive threat at the breakdown.'
The Boks will look to play the game at a high tempo and take every opportunity on offer. However, Van Graan was keen to clarify that they will still need to build momentum up front before unleashing their talented backs.
The Boks need four tries this Saturday to win the Championship, but that doesn't mean they should neglect the basic principles of Test rugby. You just don't win big Tests without first winning the forward battles.
'You can't just get to four, you have to start with one,' said Van Graan in response to the talk of tries. 'There are a number of things you have to adapt to, such as the referee, the conditions on the day and, of course, what the opposition will look to do.
'It's about varying our play and finding a weakness in the All Blacks' defence, even if they don't have many. The All Blacks are very good tactically, they play a smart territorial game. It's the same for us; we will try to get into the right positions and then look to take our opportunities.'
McCaw is set to start in this do-or-die fixture, although it will mark his first game back since injuring his knee four weeks ago. The veteran openside is unlikely to play 80 minutes, and this means that Sam Cane could well have another crack at the Boks.
On Tuesday, Cane acknowledged the Boks' progress and admitted the All Blacks are looking forward to testing themselves at the breakdown.
'They've got a good balance,' Cane said in reference to the Boks' forward line-up. 'Willem Alberts is the ball-carrier, Duane Vermeulen mixes it up and Francois Louw is a threat on the ground.
'If you add Bismarck to the equation, who is also pretty handy at the breakdown, you have a strong unit. We can't let them get dominance in that area on Saturday.'
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images
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