Boks aim to hit apparent holes in the All Blacks‚ and hit them hard
The All Blacks claim they know what’s coming.
In a land of capricious fire and ice that is fate temptingly bold on the eve of their crunch Rugby World Cup (RWC) opener against the Springboks in Yokohama on Saturday.
They presumably also did in at least three of their last four clashes with the Boks where the thinnest of margins eventually separated the sides at final whistle.
That is quite a change for a team that habitually holds sway with swagger.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read probably didn’t mean to deride the Boks when he observed that his team are fully aware of what the Green and Gold will bring in Yokohama on Saturday.
Indeed the blueprint for much of the Springboks’ rising challenge is the simplicity in its conception and execution but therein lies the rub – the All Blacks haven’t been able to do much about it.
Those four results against the Springboks‚ perhaps more than anything else have seen things stir at the top of rugby’s tree.
Steven Hansen‚ who for so long ruled the roost as the All Blacks head coach‚ has of late been drawn from his comfort zone. Whatever you make of rugby’s world rankings‚ Ireland now sit at the top‚ while Wales occupied that space for a fortnight less than a month ago.
Moreover‚ the Springboks have reassembled themselves after being a fragmented mess two years ago.
The Boks in their last few matches have challenged the All Blacks on all fronts. They haven’t just demanded increased physical exertion from their greatest foe but coach Rassie Erasmus and the personnel under his command have shown mental vitality in taking the fight to the All Blacks.
More than anything Erasmus has brought clarity to their thought processes on and off the field.
It has required Hansen and his coaching staff to get the maximum not just out of his players and coaching staff‚ but himself. Given the All Blacks’ superb win percent Hansen’s ways are rarely challenged but just of late even the deeply patriotic Kiwi media are demanding more by way of explanation from the head coach.
Hansen didn’t so much have to justify team selection this week‚ but why the Bok line-up appears more settled.
His selections for Saturday’s clash feature a loose forward who made his name on the other flank‚ a flyhalf who slots in at fullback because a place has to be found for him and two wings who are yet to fully establish themselves at international level.
There are holes‚ and then there is agent provocateur Dane Coles‚ whose proclivity for off-the-ball incident is inviting wider scrutiny.
Some have even suggested maybe this All Blacks line-up is perhaps not the one Hansen intends playing come crunch time in the RWC. The coach himself made it clear he selects the team based on what they expect from their opposition. Maybe he meant occasion.
Not that the Boks are beyond reproach. They have wings who are relatively inexperienced by international standards. They have a front row who individually are yet to fully hit their straps this season‚ a captain who may still be short of a gallop and heaven knows what must be going on in Eben Etzebeth’s mind having invited the scrutiny of the National Prosecuting Authority.
For the Boks‚ however‚ it is simple. They have made themselves redoubtable opponents by maintaining the integrity of their defensive lines‚ deploying a tactical kicking game that serves to alleviate pressure and forcing the opposition into tight corners.
They have a line-out that towers above most and a scrum that still hits hard.
They had better repeat all that. It’s what the All Blacks expect‚ and perhaps demand.
Beauden Barrett; Sevu Reece‚ Anton Lienert-Brown‚ Ryan Crotty‚ George Bridge; Richie Mo’unga‚ Aaron Smith; Kieran Read (captain)‚ Sam Cane‚ Ardie Savea; Scott Barrett‚ Sam Whitelock; Nepo Laulala‚ Dane Coles‚ Joe Moody. Substitutes: Codie Taylor‚ Ofa Tuungafasi‚ Angus Ta’avao‚ Patrick Tuipulotu‚ Shannon Frizell; TJ Perenara‚ Sonny Bill Williams‚ Ben Smith.
Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe‚ Lukhanyo Am‚ Damian de Allende‚ Makazole Mapimpi; Handre Pollard‚ Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen‚ Pieter-Steph du Toit‚ Siya Kolisi (captain); Franco Mostert‚ Eben Etzebeth; Frans Malherbe‚ Malcolm Marx‚ Steven Kitshoff. Substitutes: Bongi Mbonambi‚ Tendai Mtawarira‚ Trevor Nyakane‚ RG Snyman‚ Francois Louw; Herschel Jantjies‚ Frans Steyn‚ Jesse Kriel.
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France)‚ Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)