South Africa’s visit to Twickenham in November is looming as the Test of the year and possibly a forerunner to the 2015 World Cup final, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The last time the two teams met at Twickenham, South Africa won 15-14 in a brutal match-up of the two best and imposing sets of forwards in the game.
The All Blacks will always be a factor, home and away, but there is something special brewing among the English and the Boks have been a team on the improve since Heyneke Meyer started building a squad that continues to get better with each recalled veteran.
The New Zealand vs England series has been exceptional because it has been a Test series, in which the outcome has been uncertain throughout.
England, in not having several first-choice players available for the first Test in Auckland, have shown the rugby world there is depth in numbers. It is a credit to the quality of the English Premiership.
South Africa were dismissive of a Welsh team, whose players only recently were lauded for their physicality. The Boks treated them like rag dolls in contact situations and the Bok pack’s set-piece strength came to the fore in Durban. Only England can match the Boks in the set piece.
New Zealand rely on counter-attacking brilliance and no team possesses the individual quality of the Kiwis. Sonny Bill Williams will add a dimension to their attack next season and a fit Dan Carter will always be an asset.
Kieran Read also doesn’t have an equal at No 8 for New Zealand, and Read, Jerome Kaino and Richie McCaw remain their best loose trio.
Their tight five wobbles remain their vulnerability, although they have shown themselves capable of meeting any challenge. Just think of Ellis Park last year and Twickenham. In both Test matches they fronted emphatically.
But the All Blacks are no longer a comfortable stretch ahead of South Africa and England. There is very little between the three teams and at Twickenham there will be even less.
England are getting closer and closer – in contests with the All Blacks and Springboks. It’s brilliant for the world game and another indicator of the strength of the European domestic game.
The Boks are strong but England have been the biggest improvers for me, and with sounder game management they could easily have won the series in New Zealand.
England’s defeat in Auckland earlier in the month reminded me of the Boks' defeat in Dunedin a couple of years ago when the All Blacks came second in the contact and relied on Aaron Smith’s individualism and a rare off day from Morné Steyn’s goal-kicking to secure the win.
The All Blacks have been full value as champions of the world. They have won at home and away from home against everyone. They have won with extravagance and they have won ugly. Every bit of praise is deserved and has been earned.
But their coaching staff and senior players know just how good the English can be and just how difficult the Boks will be.
It comes back to the mental strength of all three sides and the psychology of who in the past has won the tight games.
This has been the domain of the All Blacks, but each time I watch them play I get the sense that defeat is more imminent. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened in Hamilton against the English this Saturday. And if not this weekend, then definitely at some stage during the Rugby Championship.
The November internationals will give us a better indicator because of the venue, but it makes for thrilling viewing to know that there are two teams currently capable of beating New Zealand, which is not something that could easily have been written six months ago.
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