2018 Rugby Championships

New Zealand vs South Africa

Saturday 15th September 2018

 

Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local, 08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT, 09:35 SA Time
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Nic Berry (Australia)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)

 

Two teams will take to the field in Wellington with diversely different expectations and prospects.

One team will be riding on the very crest of a wave of form. They have been playing exciting, clinical attacking rugby with remarkable precision and focus. This team expects to win this game and extend their lead in the 2018 Rugby Championships to an unassailable 20 points. They already have the full complement of 15 points from their first three games, having earned a bonus point in each game, and will be looking for another win and bonus point 5 points from this one.

The other team is sitting in the shallow waters beneath that cresting wave, that proverbial dumper, seemingly waiting for the mass of surging water to crash down on their collective heads. They might be sitting in second place on the Rugby Championships log, with a whole 6 points after a bonus point win against Argentina, followed by a losing bonus point loss to Australia, but their lofty log position is only thanks to the woeful performances of the other two participants in the RC competition.

We all know I am talking about the All Blacks and the Springboks here.

The All Blacks are right at the very top of their sublime form, playing fast, innovative, accurate, focussed rugby that exploits the smallest of errors and inaccuracies by their opponents. The Springboks, in direct contrast, are playing bumbling, inaccurate, and unfocussed rugby as they cough up error after error, after error.

Two teams that occupy opposite ends of the Book of Form.

The two teams are also having to deal with completely opposite fan reactions to their form.

The New Zealand media has been in the very best of fawning, jingoistic and self-congratulatory form, with the fans crowing and celebrating the greatness of their side.

And they have much to celebrate! The All Blacks are in a rich vein of form, playing some of the finest attacking and counter-attacking rugby imaginable.

The Springboks, on the other hand, have bumbled and stuttered along, with patches of good rugby interspersed with patches of horrendous rugby. Exciting moments are frequently halted by inexcusable handling errors. Defensive errors abound, and many promising moments flounder on a lack of clinicality and focus.

Small wonder then that the already notoriously fickle and hugely demanding South African media has been at the throats of the South Africans? The Doom & Gloomers have been out in force, and the usual bunch of “fans” have sworn off supporting “their” team in perpetuity. This is the South African way. We can swing from jeering triumphalism to the bottomless pit of despair in the blink of an eye.

The Springboks do arrive in Wellington with a mountain to climb, and that away-game monkey on their back has grown fatter and more demanding in the last week. That psychological barrier might even be bigger than the All Blacks’ defensive wall.

Can the South Africans turn it around in just one short week after a listless and inaccurate game in Brisbane? Or do they face a stormy sea and plenty of waves breaking on their collective heads.

The bookies and many pundits are suggesting an All Back tsunami.

Match-Day 23s

New Zealand

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has made several changes to his All Black side to face the Springboks.

In a move that many consider very risky, at best, Hansen has opted to recall Ryan Crotty at inside centre. Crotty is a superb rugby player, but his ongoing battle with concussion has resulted in many, including his sister, calling for him to walk away from the game.

Crotty returns to the 12 jersey, with Anton Lienert-Brown at outside centre. Jack Goodhue was to be rested this week, with Sonny Bill Williams originally chosen as one of the backline reserves. SBW has been forced to withdraw after being diagnosed with tonsillitis, so Goodhue has to step back into the fray, albeit from the bench.

Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett will resume their half-back partnership, starting their 28th Test together, with TJ Perenara providing cover off the bench.

Rieko Ioane returns from injury to the left wing, while Ben Smith moves to the right wing to make way for Jordie Barrett at full-back.

There are several changes in the forward pack from last weekend as Samuel Whitelock moves into the number four jersey, with Brodie Retallick injured, and Patrick Tuipulotu comes onto the bench as lock cover for his first Test of 2018.

Liam Squire and Sam Cane will again don the six and seven jerseys respectively, with Ardie Savea moving to the bench. Hooker Liam Coltman will provide hooker coverage from the bench, in his third Test.

South Africa

Rassie Erasmus has made four changes, including a positional switch, for Saturday’s Test with New Zealand.

Handré Pollard will start at fly-half while Malcolm Marx and Lukhanyo Am are also back in the starting line-up for the Boks’ final away match in this year’s competition.

Three of the changes are in the backline, while Erasmus also made some tweaks to the bench.

Pollard comes into the starting line-up as Elton Jantjies moves to the bench. Jesse Kriel is picked on the right wing as a result of the injury to Makazole Mapimpi.

Lukhanyo Am takes Kriel’s position at outside centre to partner Damian de Allende in a new-look midfield combination.

The only change to the pack sees Marx rotating starting places with Bongi Mbonambi in the No 2 jersey.

Amongst the reserves, Ross Cronje swaps places with Embrose Papier as the backup scrum-half.

Thoughts

The Springboks’ assistant coach Mathew Proudfoot has said this fixture will be settled up front.

I actually believe that this game is more likely to be settled in the minds of the players, rather than on the field of play. Last week the Springboks and the Wallabies revealed themselves to be totally rattled by expectations in the Test match in which they were playing.

Both sides were jittery, nervous, and visibly tense out on the field.  The nerves and tension contributed in no small measure to an appallingly bad game of rugby. The error count was horrendous, the inaccuracy and haphazardness of the game was a poor reflection on the players and their ability to handle the pressure of the occasion.

Across the Tasman the Argentineans took on the All Blacks with a totally different mindset. They were there to have fun and play the game of rugby to the best of their abilities. Winning was not as important to the Puma as it was to the Wallaby or Springbok. The lack of pressure allowed the Argentineans to focus on playing a game of rugby designed to stretch the All Blacks and to test them as much as possible. The final score flattered the All Blacks as the Pumas were never blown off the field of play, and stayed in the fight, albeit a losing fight, right until the very end.

The All Blacks, of course, played the game the only way they know how, with their usual confidence and smiles and a sense of fun as attack and counter-attack flowed in the free-form way they like to display their talents. There was no pressure on them whatsoever.

This game will be won, or lost, in the minds of the players long before the final whistle actually sounds.

I have no doubt that Proudfoot is probably correct when he says that the game could be won or lost up front, but that will only be true once the Springboks dispose of that monkey that has taken up permanent residence on their collective backs.

If we take a cold, clinical look at the task facing the Springboks, there can be no doubt that the All Blacks are slightly less accomplished in the set-pieces and in set-piece plays in 2018 than they have been in previous years. This is evidenced by their lack of scoring opportunities directly off the set-piece, something they excelled in in 2016 and 2017.

The All Blacks have scored just three tries through set-piece plays this year, and two of these were simple one-pass plays direct from Aaron Smith – Both against France in the mid-year; one try down the short-side with a break and quick pass to free Reiko Ioane and another, somewhat disputed, try by Damian McKenzie running a hard line into the 9-10 channel, aided by some referee obstruction.

The attacking plays off set-pieces has been the least effective aspect of the All Blacks’ game so far this season.

Of course, they do have the ability to take the ball through a couple of phases after the set-piece, and have often scored from those phases, but not directly from the set-piece. (Which is odd, as the Hurricanes scored more tries off set-piece plays in 2018 than ever before, so it is not something that the New Zealanders simply cannot do!)

Counter-attack and turnover play has been the single most efficient aspect of the All Backs’ game in 2018, as they pounce on the opportunity with deadly efficiency and then take the ball away from the contact point to look for space, with each player looking to create space for a team-mate to run into, and onto the ball. This clinical, yet free-form style of play has been responsible for most of the All Black points in 2018.

Of course, one must add their superior fitness levels together with a wonderfully powerful bench that is unleashed in the latter stages of every game. It is fitness, and a great bench, that facilitates that almost legendary second half surge that has carried the All Blacks to win after win in 2018.

If the Springboks want to win this game they will need to do a number of things.

First and foremost, they must not be sucked into the trap of trying to match the All Blacks in their free-form style of play. Those teams that have given the All Blacks a hard time in the last number of years have done so on the back of superbly disciplined, focussed play that targets those aspects of the game where the All Blacks are uncomfortable. The British and Irish Lions showed the world that it can be done by shutting down the space and reducing the mistakes that the All Blacks thrive on. The Australians beat the All Blacks in Brisbane last year by learning from the Lions and then doing the same. The South Africans ran the All Blacks very close in the final fixture of 2017, again by playing more direct, focussed rugby.

Deprive the All Blacks of room to move, unsettle their combinations, and do not give them turnover ball to play with, and you have every chance of beating them.

The problem, of course, is how to do that?

The Springbok effort will indeed need to start with the forwards. They will need to tame the All Black scrum and keep it honest.

They will need to compete and even deprive the All Blacks of the lineout ball that they love to attack with. The All Blacks most usually play a 6- or 7-man lineout, with the ball going quickly straight off-the-top in the mid-field areas. They hardly, if ever, set up a maul or a drive outside the opposition 22m area. In midfield situations, they go off the top and then play with a bit more creativity, on occasion using the full backline to run strike plays. They like to set the ball up for a quick play off the tackle or ruck when the initial movement is stopped.

If the Springbok loose-forwards are awake to this off-the-top tactic and can put pressure onto the 9/10/12 axis, the All Blacks can be caught behind the gain line.

Whilst the All Blacks have one of the finest flyhalves in the world in their team, it is interesting that the bulk of their set-piece plays are made off the 12, in this Test that 12 will be Ryan Crotty. Barrett likes to give a quick feed to Crotty and then loop around to take the return pass, or to join the backs a bit wider, outside the 13.

Crotty is the key. He is the general that controls the play once the ball is moving, which is probably why the All Blacks have brought him back into the starting XV with such alacrity.

But Ryan Crotty can be controlled. The British Lions did it, the Aussies did it. If he is shut down by a rush defence, with chasing loosies, he is just too small and light to be able to take the ball through the tackle and offload the way a Sonny Bill Williams can.

The next part of the Springbok effort will need to revolve around the contest for the ball on the ground. This may well be a problem!

Malcolm Marx is the only real fetcher in the entire pack of forwards, with none of the three chosen loose-forwards excelling in this play. Marx will need the help of every single player if South Africa want to shut down the quick broken play and turnover ball the All Blacks consider their meat and potatoes.

Kieran Read, Sam Cane, and Liam Squire, ably supported by Scott Barrett, and Samuel Whitelock are masters of the turnover ball, either stealing the ball or slowing opposition ball down to a mere trickle.

It will require a super-human effort to strangle this supply of ball, with special focus on cleaning out the fringes and the man over the ball, if the Springboks want to win this game.

The bottom-line to the efforts of the Springbok pack will be to achieve parity in the set-pieces, perhaps steal a couple off the All Blacks, but the main effort has to be in the loose and over the ball on the ground. Fail here, and the Springboks will be in for a long afternoon of chasing and tackling in Wellington!

Turning to the backs, the Springboks will also have to look for a clinical, error free, and thoroughly focussed approach by the entire back division.

If anyone is still wondering why Handré Pollard is starting this Test all they have to do is look at the man he is up against. Beauden Barrett’s running game is his obvious strength, but he does not take a flat ball and attack the line all that often. Attacking in close is left to the likes of the 9, especially Aaron Smith, and perhaps a wing on the cut, and the loosies to run at the opposing 10 channel and then for Barrett to take the recycled ball on. Pollard’s defence is way stronger than that of Elton Jantjies, and he will certainly have a job of work to do to handle the close in running of the All Blacks.

Alternatively, Pollard likes to take the ball flat and attack the 10 channel directly, looking to play support runners into space. Barrett is not the greatest of defenders in such direct attacking moments, and this might be a tiny chink in the All Black armour for the Springboks to exploit.

Pollard also adds a far more educated tactical boot to the mix, with an ability to place pin-point accurate kicks behind onrushing defenders, whilst Jantjies’ boot is somewhat wayward and often completely misguided.

The Springbok midfield has been reworked again, which might cause problems. The continual shuffling of players does not give a combination the chance to settle and build. The defence will revolve around De Allende, with Am needing to maintain his line rather than drifting in close as he did on a number of occasions in the first two tests against the Argentineans. The midfield defence needs to be as solid as a rock, and as quick as lightning to shut down the space the All Blacks want to play in.

The Springbok back-three has been a cause for concern for some time. Not so much for their attacking ability as for their defensive wobbles. In the last 6 outings, the two wings have shown a propensity for drifting in off their wing and leaving the outside channel exposed. This problem has been identified by every team they play against, and each in turn has exploited this weakness, scoring freely down the Springbok outside channels. With runners like Ioane, Smith, and Jordie Barrett attacking out wide the All Blacks are likely to target this area again. The choice of Jesse Kriel on the wing might add some solidity on defence, but his ability under the high ball is likely to be tested early on. He started his career as a fullback, so he may provide an answer for his country.

The Springboks will need to focus on getting the basics right, from the kick-off to the final whistle. They will need to minimise errors, and focus on making good decisions all afternoon. They simply have to show the mental discipline to resist the temptation to take on the All Blacks in an open, free-flowing game of rugby. This approach did not work for the Australians in two Tests, and it did not work for the Argentineans last week.

For once, the South African preference for direct midfield play with forwards driving off the 9, might just be the right option? It should not be overdone as it was against Australia, but it might just force the All Blacks to defend more than they like.

The key is to shut down the All Black opportunities in broken play, and to apply constant pressure off the set-pieces. Do this, and the Springboks have a chance.

Prediction

Whilst the Springboks might have a chance if they can bring a level of discipline and focus to this game that has been sadly missing during the first three Rugby Championship efforts of 2018, the likelihood of such a turnaround has to be remote.

We can probably expect a vastly improved Springbok performance, perhaps because the weight of expectation has been lifted, strangely enough, by their loss to Australia last week. Freedom from expectation might just be the catalyst that sets the Springboks up for a good performance.

I am expecting a better performance by the Springboks, but I am also expecting the All Black machine to simply keep rolling on unstoppably.

The All Blacks, by 15 points or more.

Teams:

New Zealand (revised): 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Jack Goodhue, 23 Damian McKenzie

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jesse Kriel, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Beast Mtawarira, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Cheslin Kolbe