Bok brutes in spotlight

The Springbok forwards need to take the fight to the All Blacks in the first stanza for the hosts to have any chance of scoring an upset on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Durban.

Three years ago, I was in Auckland for the buildup to the Test between the All Blacks and Boks. South Africa had travelled to New Zealand on the back of a 38-12, four-try win against the Wallabies in Brisbane.

Back then, there was a feeling among the Bok coaches and players – and indeed among the New Zealand media and public – that the old foe was in a position to challenge the All Blacks’ dominance at Eden Park.

History will show that referee Romain Poite ruined what promised to be an epic clash when he yellow-carded Bismarck du Plessis twice over the course of the game. World Rugby later ruled that Poite was wrong to send Du Plessis from the field. It didn’t change the result, however, and it didn’t give New Zealand and South African fans another opportunity to view what could have been one of the greatest contests in the professional era.

That said, it’s hard to forget the buildup to that match. There was a buzz about the Boks following their systematic demolition of Australia in Brisbane. Back then, they possessed so many of what the Americans would call ‘difference-makers’ in their pack.

Back then, it was hard to match the Boks at the collisions and the breakdown. Back then, the Boks had Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen competing on the deck. They had the same Du Plessis and Vermeulen, as well as Eben Etzebeth and Willem Alberts, setting the tone at the gainline. They were a team to be respected, because they were a team to be feared as far as physicality was concerned.

Fast forward to 2016. The Boks have lost four of their eight Tests this season. So many local reporters have lamented the loss of an aura. Over in New Zealand, journalists are starting to echo the sentiment.

While the All Blacks are renowned for their handling skills and finishing, the Kiwi public still relishes a battle in the trenches. According to the New Zealand Herald's veteran scribe Wynne Gray, the Boks no longer have the personnel to physically intimidate and stifle the All Blacks.

Adriaan Strauss produced his best performance of 2016 when the Boks beat Australia 18-10 last week. And yet, Strauss at his best still doesn’t compare to a fit and firing Du Plessis.

Oupa Mohoje has been more busy than belligerent this season. The loose trio as a combination has lacked grunt at the collisions and presence at the breakdown.

The back row is without a heavy hitter at blindside flank and is without the big-tackling and ball-stealing talents of Vermeulen. For those who missed the story earlier this week, Vermeulen is fit and available, but hasn't been recalled by Coetzee.

So can the Boks win this Saturday? Probably not. They simply do not have the physicality to rattle the New Zealanders for 80 minutes.

Both head coaches have attempted to play down the suspension of All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith. The truth is that the world's best No 9 will be missed.

Rain is expected on Saturday and this should prevent the All Blacks from running riot. TJ Perenara does not possess the same tactical strengths as Smith, and so flyhalf Beauden Barrett will need to take on more responsibility in terms of the implementation of the All Blacks’ famed kicking game.

The Boks will look to disrupt the All Blacks at the set pieces. They will look to win the collisions, and to transfer the pressure on to Barrett. They will hope to limit the flyhalf’s attacking space and to force him into errors.

But again, there are doubts that the Boks have the personnel up front to do so.

Morné Steyn may keep the Boks in the game in the first 60 minutes. The Bok flyhalf has the temperament and the ability to capitalise on all kickable opportunities.

In the second half, however, the All Blacks should break away. New Zealand have proved superior to South Africa in the second half in all matches since 2012. Most recently, the All Blacks put 26 points past the Boks in the second stanza in Christchurch.

Coetzee has done the side no favours by favouring a 6-2 split on the bench. The Boks will be looking to win the set-piece, gainline and territorial battles. They will be looking to slow and stifle the All Blacks for a period of 80 minutes.

Very few teams have been able to live with the All Blacks in the dying stages over the past five years. Even when the Boks beat the All Blacks in 2014, they lost the second half 12-6.

The Boks have shown nothing over the past season to suggest that they are ready to outlast the All Blacks in an 80-minute battle. The absence of Aaron Smith as well as the wet conditions may give them hope, and may serve to keep the All Blacks in check. It would be a stretch, however, to say that this Bok team is in a position to halt a team on the verge of its 17th straight Test win.

The All Blacks should equal the tier-one Test record for the most consecutive wins on Saturday. It would surprise if they did not beat the Boks at Kings Park, and if they did not claim their sixth consecutive bonus-point win in this year’s competition. That result may consign the Boks to a third place finish in this year’s tournament.

Overall: Springboks 35, All Blacks 54, Draw 3
At Kings Park: Springboks 3, All Blacks 3

– The All Blacks have won eight of their last nine matches against South Africa.
– New Zealand’s 28-point winning margin against South Africa earlier in this tournament was their joint-third biggest ever victory against the Springboks.
– Five of the six previous meetings between these sides at Kings Park have been decided by fewer than 10 points.
– Morné Steyn scored 31 points (one try, one conversion, eight penalties) for the Springboks the last time these two teams clashed at this venue in 2009, the most ever by a player against New Zealand.
– When these sides met earlier in the tournament, the All Blacks’ starting backline beat 18 defenders between them, over twice as many as South Africa’s corresponding players (7).
– The All Blacks have already scored 205 points and 29 tries in this tournament, both record tallies in a single Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations campaign.
– Three of the four players to make the most clean breaks are All Blacks (Julian Savea – 11, Ben Smith – 10, Israel Dagg – 8)
– South Africa have enjoyed less possession than any other side, a total of just 1hr 10m 24s over their five games so far (14m 5s per game).
Source: Opta

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres Most tackles
Springboks  Elton Jantjies (33) Johan Goosen, Warren Whiteley, Bryan Habana (2) Johan Goosen (226) Oupa Mohoje (51)
All Blacks Beauden Barrett (65) Ben Smith (4) Julian Savea (373) Sam Whitelock (48)

Springboks – 15 Pat Lambie, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Jaco Kriel, 22 Lionel Mapoe, 23 Willie le Roux.

All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 George Moala.

Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Johnny Lacey (Ireland), George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)

Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli