JON CARDINELLI analyses the key match-ups and picks the winner of the titanic tussle at Eden Park.
It's amazing how the complexion of an entire competition can change in the space of a few short weeks. I wrote at the start of the Castle Rugby Championship that it would be important to measure this Springbok side by the quality of their performances rather than their results. I argued that the Boks are not yet the finished article, and that if they were to lose both Tests on this, the toughest conceivable tour to Australasia, then the disappointment shouldn't be mistaken for disaster.
But then the Boks exceeded expectations at Suncorp Stadium, smashing the Wallabies by a record 38-12 score and ending their long drought at the venue. On the same day, the All Blacks beat Argentina in Hamilton, but lost captain Richie McCaw to a serious knee injury.
The manner of that Bok performance as well as the gut-wrenching loss of the All Blacks' talisman seemed to be strong omens that another, ultimately greater milestone was in the offing.
Saturday will be war, with the Boks laying siege to the Kiwi fortress. Eden Park will fall, records will tumble, and the Boks will emerge with one of the rarest and most coveted scalps in the sport.
After a week in Auckland, I've seen and heard nothing to alter this view. I well and truly believe that a feat that was initially viewed as close to impossible is suddenly highly probable.
Again, I feel it's important to point out that I began this season with tempered expectations. Through weight of performance, the Boks have forced me to raise these expectations little by little each week.
And now, through a twist of fate that sees the greatest-ever All Black sidelined, and through a stroke of fortune that sees the New Zealand coach making several questionable selections for the biggest game since the 2011 World Cup final, the bar of expectation has been elevated to record heights. Cheers for that, Steve Hansen!
I'm sure that back home much of the expectation has been generated from that resounding win in Brisbane. This is the performance and victory that the South African public will be savouring and using to justify their prediction for a big win at Eden Park.
Having spent a week on the ground here in Auckland, I can confirm that there is more than just one reason to feel optimistic. The feeling in the local media is that the All Blacks are due a loss, and the All Blacks themselves have not exuded their usual calm and confidence during many of their media interchanges.
The players seem excited that there's finally a team in town that can challenge them, but I wonder if they aren't a bit worried, too.
Heyneke Meyer has stuck with the same 23 that did battle in Brisbane. He will send these troops into battle at Eden Park on Saturday with the knowledge that they are well equipped to obliterate the defences of the enemy, and then invade and occupy their territory.
Meyer has said that he'd take an ugly win – hell, he'd take a win with warts on it. These words give us an insight into his thinking regarding tactics, but then the weather will also prescribe that both teams play the percentages.
The team that is stronger in contact and takes its opportunities in front of goal will prevail. There will be no points for style.
The Boks are better prepared for a clash of this nature. Their pack has been in impressive form of late, and they would back themselves to dominate this All Black unit in just about every forward facet.
Hansen has gambled by selecting Dane Coles ahead of the more experienced hooking options of Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu. It's a decision that will please Meyer, as well as Coles's opposite number, Bismarck du Plessis, whose appetite for destruction was patent at Suncorp Stadium. Eating Stephen Moore would have been satisfying. Chomping Dane Coles? Coles probably won't even touch sides.
It was at Suncorp where the Bok scrum produced their most emphatic performance of the season. As an individual, Du Plessis seemed to be back to his best. Coles will be flanked by two good props in Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks this weekend, but I have no doubt that Du Plessis and company will attack the weak link.
Both coaches have made some interesting selections in the pack, considering the importance of the lineout battle.
Meyer has opted to keep the same team that started in Brisbane, with Flip van der Merwe retaining the No 5 jersey. I would think that the more athletic Juandré Kruger is better suited to this contest, but evidently Meyer has placed an emphasis on physicality in that crucial opening half.
What eased my concerns was the announcement of the All Blacks team, and confirmation that the hosts will field Sam Cane and Liam Messam in their back row. Both men are short in stature and thus not lineout options.
The selection of these two players is also questionable given the importance of the breakdown battle. I can't see them living with a Bok loose trio that is both bigger and better.
I'm still not sure who it was who said this set of Bok loosies lack pace. They certainly didn't want for acceleration, accuracy or aggression in their most recent clash with the Wallabies.
They will benefit from the platform provided by their tight five this weekend, and Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen will dish out their unique brand of punishment. With McCaw watching the match from the stands, there will be only one openside flank in this contest. Expect Francois Louw to have another big say in another big win. Cane will take a lesson in defeat.
Collectively, the Boks have every right to feel confident. They have the pack, the defensive structures, and the kicking game to beat the All Blacks, even if this Test is to be staged at Eden Park.
They also boast a goal-kicker who is back to his best. Morné Steyn will be keen to prove a point after last year's howler in Dunedin, where he missed four shots at goal.
Having said that, it's still going to be desperately close. The All Blacks may be missing key players like McCaw, but are fortunate that Kieran Read, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and Israel Dagg are available.
These are world-class players. Apart from Nonu, these men are presently the best Test players in their respective positions. Any one of these players is capable of making the game-breaking play to swing a result. It's important that the Boks maintain their focus for the full 80 minutes.
One only needs to look back to the 29-22 tragedy at Soccer City in 2010, where the Boks dominated for much of the game, but then allowed the All Blacks to strike back in the dying moments. It was Nonu who made the break and Dagg who finished to secure that result. Then captain John Smit was left clutching nothing but Nonu's boot, lamenting the missed tackle that had allowed the movement to progress.
The Boks are on the verge of something special, and believe me when I say that everybody here in New Zealand realises that a big upset is possible.
The 48,000 that sardine into Eden Park this Saturday will lend the All Blacks the belief they need to stay in the game. Ultimately, it will come down to who can handle the pressure better in the second half.
The Boks made a statement in Brisbane, they overcame a strong Wallabies fightback at the beginning of the second stanza to prevail. They will need to show muscle in Auckland this Saturday, but they will also have to show their mettle.
They will need to win the battles up front, to storm the All Blacks' territory, and to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Only then will they take that partisan crowd out the equation. If they win these battles, they will win the war.
MY CALL: Boks by 3
All Blacks – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumaina, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Charles Piutau.
Springboks – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Juandré Kruger, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
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