The Springboks need to win the breakdown battle and pressure All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith at Ellis Park this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Lima Sopoaga will start his first Test for the All Blacks this weekend. It’s a big call by coach Steve Hansen.
While the New Zealanders hold no fear for Ellis Park, they do respect the challenge of playing in this cauldron. The Springboks will be physical. The partisan crowd will be hostile. Can Sopoaga handle this pressure, and orchestrate an important win for the All Blacks in the buildup to the 2015 World Cup?
Fortunately for Sopoaga, he will be playing alongside some of the best players on the planet. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith will be on his outside, and arguably the most important player to the New Zealand cause, Aaron Smith, will be on his inside.
Smith is the best scrumhalf in the world at present. He’s been integral to the All Blacks’ sustained success over the past few seasons, and was the key man for the Highlanders in the 2015 Vodacom Super Rugby play-offs.
If Smith is afforded the time to launch those highly effective box-kicks, or the space to set up that dangerous back division, the All Blacks will win this clash by a comfortable margin.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has made a statement of his own by selecting two openside flankers in his back row. Injuries to powerful ball-carriers like Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee have influenced the change in personnel and game plan. And yet Meyer feels it's a ploy that could pay off, and that the Boks may well record their second successive win against the No 1 side on the planet.
Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Louw and Schalk Burger have not played in the same loose trio before, and synergy may be a problem. The Boks have also been forced to select Lood de Jager at No 5. The pack may take time to settle.
But that’s not to say the forwards don’t have the potential to out-muscle and out-play the All Blacks at the tackle point. The Boks’ speed between the rucks will be key, and the decision-making in this area will be game-shaping.
Brüssow will be looking to prove a point after four years in the international wilderness. He has never lost to the All Blacks. He out-played his All Black counterparts at the breakdown in each of the previous four contests.
The big question is whether he can do so this Saturday. He has not played a Test for Meyer's Boks before, and then there’s the fact that the All Blacks are a far better unit than was the case when they lost three successive Tests to South Africa in 2009.
If Brüssow and Louw combine to win the battle on the deck, the Boks should be ahead by half-time. Hooker Bismarck du Plessis, who made several important steals last week, will also have a big role to play at the breakdown. Those turnovers will provide the Boks with some great counter-attacking chances. As was witnessed in Brisbane last week, the Boks have the runners out wide to capitalise on these opportunities.
While so much has been made of the looming breakdown scrap, the battle at the collisions could be just as crucial. The Boks need to force the All Blacks pack on to the back foot. This will ensure that halfbacks Smith and Sopoaga rush their decision-making and execution. And that pressure may lead to mistakes.
It will be interesting to see if the Boks can maintain their effort in the second half. The All Blacks have shown on previous occasions that they are the fitter team, and play some of their best rugby in the final minutes of a Test. They will scrap to remain in the game, and then target the Boks in the fourth quarter.
Meyer himself will have a point to prove with the timing of his substitutions. This week, the hosts don't boast a lot of experience on the bench. Vincent Koch and Lionel Mapoe are set to make their Test debuts in this fixture, while Warren Whiteley has only two caps to his name. Flip van der Merwe hasn’t played Test rugby since 2013, and only linked up with the Bok squad this past Monday. He will take time to find his feet.
If the game is in the balance in the final minutes, the Boks may need another hero to slot the winning goal, as Pat Lambie did in last year’s fixture. Overall, Meyer will be hoping for a better goal-kicking performance by his starting flyhalf, Handré Pollard.
Conditions at Ellis Park will be cold and possibly wet, if local weather predictions are to be believed. Pollard will need to adapt to those conditions if the Boks are to win this contest.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: All Blacks 51, Boks 35, Draw 3
In South Africa: Boks 25, All Blacks 20, Draw 1
STATS AND FACTS
– South Africa are aiming for back-to-back victories over the All Blacks for the first time since September 2009.
– New Zealand produced the fewest kicks from hand (11) in round one, while South Africa came up with the most (27).
– South Africa was the only side not to maintain a 100% success rate at the lineout in week one; they misplaced two of 14 throws.
– The All Blacks have opened the try-scoring in each of their last four Tests, twice via wingers and twice via back-rowers.
– South Africa have lost two Tests in succession, but not lost three in a row since August 2011.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Schalk Burger (c), 7 Francois Louw, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Warren Whiteley, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Lionel Mapoe.
All Blacks – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 James Broadhursts, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Sam Whitelock, 20 Victor Vito, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images