There has never been a time when a Test match between South Africa and New Zealand was irrelevant. The nearest it has ever come was in 1999 when the two great rivals were forced to play off for third place at the Rugby World Cup.
After being humbled by the French at Twickenham four days previously, the All Blacks played like zombies at the Millennium Stadium.
The Springboks had an extra day to recover, as well as the knowledge that it had taken a bizarre Stephen Larkham drop goal in extra time to oust the defending champions. As a result, they had more to play for and a single moment of Breyton Paulse brilliance proved to be the difference between the sides.
Fast forward to 2014 and the All Blacks have wrapped up their third successive Rugby Championship; all they have left to play for is that ever-expanding record run without defeat. Ellis Park on Saturday will be their biggest challenge since … well, since they last faced South Africa, a month ago in Wellington.
The nature of a rivalry is that each participant needs to win now and again. To put it into context, Roger Federer needed Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to prove his greatness. Without them he would have been a colossus who was never tested, thereby forever casting doubt on his true worth.
We have reached the stage where the Springboks need to beat the All Blacks for the sake of the rivalry as much as for the ongoing wellbeing of Heyneke Meyer’s team. In the 22 years since South Africa emerged from international isolation, they have played New Zealand 51 times. They have won just 14 of those games and drawn one.
In other words, the All Blacks win slightly more than three Tests to every game they lose against the Springboks.
The recent trend is even worse. Since Ricky Januarie’s famous chip and chase try in Hamilton in 2009, South Africa has had but one win in 10 starts, and that was in Port Elizabeth in 2011 against an All Black side shorn of the bulk of its World Cup participants. Not so much Federer/Nadal then, as Goliath/David.
Straws are being clutched at. Last year’s game at the same Ellis Park venue was “one of the finest Tests ever played”: South Africa lost 38-27. This year’s Wellington Test was “desperately close”: South Africa lost 14-10.
And, although the scoreline might have been close, the stats are extraordinarily one-sided. The All Blacks carried the ball twice as often as the Boks (162-80). They gained twice as much ground (611m to 282m) and were asked to make half as many tackles (75-155).
In the circumstances, it is little short of miraculous that the Boks came so close to winning. It tells the story of a team that has learned to play without the ball. More than that, in fact, a team that regards possession as a liability.
We have reached a tipping point and it must be acknowledged that stopping the opposition playing is an effective method 90% of the time, but to beat the best side in the world it is not enough.
Inevitably, the protean efforts of the last quarter against Australia last week have ignited fresh optimism. But the first hour of endeavour has to be properly analysed. For the first time in the campaign, the Boks took the ball through many phases on a regular basis. That is to say, they minimised the propensity to kick a good ball away.
But in all that time they managed one (unconverted) pushover try and a penalty and trailed 10-8 against a desperately average Wallaby outfit.
The official reason that things subsequently improved is that the Boks were the better-conditioned side, with a superior bench that was able to reap the rewards of the attrition that had gone before.
Maybe that is to give too much credit to the thud and blunder of the first hour, however.
Maybe the game changed with one cerebral moment, when Pat Lambie recognised that phase play had exhausted its possibilities and that what was really needed was a drop goal.
That simple strike from Lambie’s boot gave the Boks the lead at 11-10 and changed the whole dynamic of the match. Now it was the Wallabies who were forced to play catch up and cracks in the defence inevitably opened.
It is intriguing, then, that Meyer has largely ignored that last quarter in his selection for this week.
Handré Pollard remains at flyhalf, although it is likely that Lambie will get more game time than he did at Newlands, perhaps as much as half an hour.
Bismarck du Plessis is “rotated” into the front row, but it is clear that his unexpected demotion has had the required galvanising effect on the hooker.
Less praiseworthy is the decision to wait until Saturday morning for Duane Vermeulen to prove his fitness. The Stormers’ eighth man has had a monumental season and deserves a rest.
Patching him up to play against the All Blacks in a dead rubber is counterproductive.
The coach should have bitten the bullet, selected Schalk Burger at eight and dealt with the consequences.
Suggesting, as some have, that the All Blacks could be put off their stride wondering who they will face on the day is so much psychological claptrap. They have not reached Olympian heights by worrying about the selection issues of their opponents.
Article source: http://mg.co.za/article/2014-10-02-get-a-grip-springboks