The Highveld of South Africa – an area more than 1500 metres above sea level – is supposedly Springbok rugby’s ally. It is one of the reasons why the last three Tests in this country between the Boks and All Blacks have been staged in Johannesburg.
But it has been the visitors who’ve triumphed on all those occasions, debunking the myth the Boks are best placed to beat their fiercest foes when the matches are staged in the thin air of the Highveld.
On their last three visits to Johannesburg the All Blacks have come out tops. Last year they won 38-27 at Ellis Park, while in 2012 and 2010 they registered 32-16 and 29-22 wins at the FNB Stadium. Before that, the only other time in the last 11 years the All Blacks have played in Joburg, the Boks won 40-26, at Ellis Park in 2004, but less than a handful of players involved in the Rugby Championship match this weekend were involved on that occasion.
South Africa’s most recent triumphs on home soil came at the coast – in Port Elizabeth in 2011 (18-5), while in 2009 the Boks also won in Durban (31-19). Their most recent win on the Highveld – if Bloemfontein is considered a part of the region – was in 2009, a 28-19 victory.
Do the Boks then have the edge playing up-country, as opposed to at the coast? It wouldn’t appear that way, but it may also simply be that New Zealand have just been the better team, no matter where they play. It’s also been suggested the All Blacks are a better conditioned team, meaning they can outlast the Boks.
But with the Test between the old enemies being staged in Johannesburg for the fourth time in five years at Ellis Park this weekend, the South African Rugby Union obviously feel the Boks have a slight edge over the All Blacks. And, any advantage they can get over their opposition is beneficial.
Bok team doctor Craig Roberts said the big thing is the South African players are more accustomed to playing on the Highveld. “Our guys are used to the altitude, that’s where we get the benefit,” said Roberts.
He did concede, however, that to gain the optimum advantage the Boks would have to be based on the Highveld for far longer than just a week. “Ideally to get a physiological benefit we need to be up here at least 10 days before a game, but preferably for a month,” explained Roberts.
The Boks only arrived in Johannesburg from Cape Town on Sunday, while the New Zealanders flew in from Argentina on Monday so the playing fields have been levelled. “It doesn’t make a big difference then, being based up here for just six days before the game,” said Roberts.
“Playing at altitude is more psychological than anything else,” said the Bok doctor. “We probably know a bit better how to deal with it … the big burn that comes after 10 minutes of action. It then goes away and you feel a lot better.”
The recent results though show the All Blacks deal with that chest burn pretty alright. Bar the three Johannesburg-based Tests in the last four years which they’ve won, the All Blacks also smashed the Boks in Pretoria (45-26) in 2006. A week later though, on September 2, 2006, the Boks won 21-20 in Rustenburg, in what was a do-or-die match for then-coach Jake White.
Bok boss Heyneke Meyer yesterday also said the days of South Africa having the upper hand on the Highveld are long gone. “A few years ago the Highveld was a big advantage for us; travelling teams always found it difficult up here. But in the professional era, I don’t believe a stadium or crowd can do it for you,” said Meyer.
Roberts says the annual Super Rugby competition has also made it easier for the New Zealanders to come here and win at altitude. “The players know what it’s like and what to expect, they’ve toured here so often in Super Rugby … the conditions are not unfamiliar to them anymore.”
But there will always be certain elements playing on the Highveld which the Boks will probably be more used to. “The ball travels further, the ball bounces higher and for some players it takes a little time to get used to that,” said Roberts.
There’s not much that separates the two top teams in the world, but history suggests the Boks will have little advantage going into Saturday’s Test, even though it’s being staged at a venue the players love. “The All Blacks have had good results up here recently, but we’re hoping to get a good result on Saturday,” said Roberts. – The Star