Etzebeth to make call on game against All Blacks, who expect same old Boks
It came as no surprise that the absence of South African teams from Super Rugby in the past four years would be a primary topic in the build-up to this weekend’s 104th Test against New Zealand.
Which country has benefited the most from rugby’s “conscious uncoupling” shouldn’t and won’t be determined by one match. However, that New Zealand has missed the presence of South Africa, can’t be argued.
It’s been four years since the Springboks last played in that country, a result of a scheduling quirk and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The lack of provincial rugby contact creates further ambiguity ahead of Saturday’s Test at Mount Smart stadium in Auckland, a game the Boks will play with heavy news on their shoulders after it emerged Eben Etzebeth, their captain on the day, learnt on Wednesday that his father Harry had died.
The team’s management made no comment, but it is understood any decision about Etzebeth playing at the weekend will be made by the player.
All Blacks centre Rieko Ioane admitted he hasn’t watched how the South African teams have fared in the European competitions, which isn’t the case in the opposition ranks.
“I definitely follow Super Rugby,” Ioane’s opposite number Lukhanyo Am insisted. “I guess playing in the north the last few years, you miss the style of play in Super Rugby that’s down here in the south.”
While South African players, commentators and fans have quickly taken to the new tournaments from Europe, debate has raged in New Zealand about how much that country’s teams not facing their South African provincial counterparts has had an effect on their game.
The improvement seen in Europe not just at senior level, but through the junior structures too, as evidenced by three of the four semi-finalists in the Under-20 World Cup being European, lends extra credence to New Zealand concerns.
Am explained there were pros and cons to South Africa’s merging with the European powers.
“In the north it's more about the set piece, it’s technical, there’s a lot of aerial competition and it’s territorial. In Super Rugby, the conditions are much faster, the ball does the work and it moves around a lot more,” Am said.
Less contact has also meant the players aren’t familiar with each other as those who faced each 15 years ago, when, it could be argued, Super Rugby was at its peak.
“You get to know the players better when you are competing against them. There is something of an unknown about them, but that can be to our advantage too, because they haven’t seen us,” said Kwagga Smith, who will start in his 32nd Test on Saturday.
The All Blacks name their team on Thursday and believe this weekend’s encounter will provide an important marker for their progress, after an opening victory in the Rugby Championship against Argentina last Saturday.
“We don’t get many [matches] against them now, so to get to test ourselves against big forward packs, which is what it will be [at the Rugby World Cup] with them and France, has come at a good time for us,” said the All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan.
Where both teams do agree, is that the Boks’s game plan won’t change much from what has historically made them successful. “They are pretty clear on their DNA, you have to respect and admire them for it,” said Ryan.
That plan relies on forward dominance and bullying the opposition in the collisions as the Australians found out last week.
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