Rugby World Cup Match Previews

Pool B

New Zealand vs South Africa

Date: Saturday, September 21
Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama
Kick-off: 18h45 Local Time; 10h45 BST; 09h45 GMT; 11h45 SA Time
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

I watched the New Zealand TV show “The Breakdown” this week, featuring a host of hugely experienced ex-All Blacks and ex-coaches lead by Jeff Wilson and Ali Williams discussing the looming Rugby World Cup and the game between the Springboks and the All Blacks. One of the participants was John Hart, who coached the all Blacks from 1996 to 1999. He made a very interesting observation.

He suggested that the loser of this encounter would have an easier road to the final! 

He is convinced that these two teams are destined to meet in the final, and it is all about their route to the final. The winner of this encounter is likely to have to face England in the semi-final, while the loser will play the winner out of Ireland or Scotland, in the quarterfinals, and then face the winner of a matchup between one of France, Wales, or Australia in the semi-finals. He feels certain that the Runner-Up position in Pool B is preferable to going into the quarterfinals as the winner of the pool.

That is, however, simply the ramblings of a retired coach. The reality is that this is a Test between South Africa and New Zealand and there is so much more than simply progression to the quarterfinals at stake.

Pride? Yes. 

Bragging rights? Yes. 

Log Points? Yes.

But most importantly, confidence. 

The winner of this encounter will gain that most invaluable of all things, confidence.

And that is what this first round of the 2019 Rugby World Cup is all about.

The Weather

There has been some speculation that the weather in Yokohama is predicted to turn nasty and that this Test will be played in torrential rain. I am not sure where this information comes from. The two weather services I subscribe to, the Norwegian YR service and Accuweather both suggest that the weather will be partly cloudy all day, with occasional rain.

The temperature at kick-off is predicted to be around 23℃with no rain predicted during the game itself. Humidity will be high, around 71%, with dew point predicted to be around 18℃.

This does not support the speculation that torrential rain might cause the game to deteriorate into a mud-bath kicking competition.

The high humidity with a low 18℃may well cause the ball to be a little slippery and for the conditions to be a little wet underfoot, but this is not unexpected in Japan at this time of the year.

This is the detailed prediction from YR:

The Unpredictable:

The World Rugby’s High Performance Manager for Match Officials (A fancy title for Head of Referees), Alain Rolland, has said that the high-tackle framework had been pulled together in collaboration with coaches and that all decisions over red cards would be made on merit with mitigating factors, such as whether a tackled player ducked before being clobbered, taken into account.

He has not said anything about leniency, and we have seen cards a-plenty during the warm-up games for this World Cup.

This is seen as a veiled threat from the referees that they will clobber players for anything that even vaguely suggests a high tackle.

Whilst the Rugby World Cup organisers have insisted that officials will not be looking to “lay down a marker” over high tackles by flourishing red cards with abandon, I would suggest that teams will need to be ultra-wary of the possibility of an over-zealous referee spoiling a game of rugby as  contest.

Discipline will be key!

Selections:

South Africa

South Africa will field what seems to be their strongest matchday 23 when they take on New Zealand in their opening Rugby World Cup match in Yokohama on Saturday.

Coach Rassie Erasmus has named the same starting XV and eight replacements that defeated Japan 41-7 in Kumagaya two weeks ago. 

It is the first time since the 2015 Rugby World Cup that the Springboks will field an unchanged squad.

The last time South Africa named an unchanged 23 was 51 matches ago – against New Zealand in the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-final. 

Number eight Duane Vermeulen will be appearing in his 50th Test. Remarkably, only three of the starting XV have played fewer than 25 Tests (Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi) while only replacement scrum-half Herschel Jantjies was not capped before this season.

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 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 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Jesse Kriel

New Zealand:

Coach Steve Hansen has named a full strength starting XV for the opener against the Springboks in Yokohama on Saturday.

In the backline, Aaron Smith will start at scrumhalf, with TJ Perenara on the bench. Richie Mo’unga is at 10, with Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown the starting midfield combination, with Sonny Bill Williams to come from the bench.

The back three are George Bridge and Sevu Reece on the wings and Beauden Barrett at full-back. 80-Test utility back Ben Smith will come off the bench.

In the forwards, the starting front-row is made up of props Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala and hooker Dane Coles, with reserves off the bench being props Ofa Tuungafasi and Angus Ta’avao and Codie Taylor.

The starting second-row is 112-Test veteran Samuel Whitelock and Scott Barrett, with Patrick Tuipulotu providing support from the bench. The starting back-row is Ardie Savea at six, Sam Cane in the openside flanker number seven jersey and captain Kieran Read at number eight, in what will be his 115th Test start.

Loose forward Shannon Frizell is named on the bench.

New Zealand: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Ardie Savea, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Sonny Bill Williams, 23 Ben Smith

Thoughts:

Of all the Pool games at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, this is probably the most difficult game to preview and predict. 

In their last three encounters, the two teams have managed a win apiece and a draw. Significantly, the points scored in the three Tests combine for a draw of 82-all!

This Test is more than just the first round of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, it is also a continuation of the biggest rivalry in world rugby. These are the two most successful teams in rugby history, with the All Blacks slightly better off in terms of overall results against all nations. 

When the Springboks and the All Blacks clash, it is the very pinnacle of rugby battles. Even when one of the teams is going through a rough patch, they somehow find something extra when they face off against their oldest rivals. In all the two teams have faced off 98 times, with the All Blacks having won 58, the Springboks 36, and 4 Tests being drawn.

The respect between the two teams has been a significant contributor to the on-field collisions between the teams, it is as hard as it gets but never with malice aforethought, and their off-field friendship is legendary. (Not that this respect and friendship extends to the two countries’ media, who are happy to slag each other off at every opportunity.)

What can we expect from this game?

We have heard much about the All Blacks new “dual playmaker” game plan, as they have looked for a way to get past the modern defensive structures. Springbok defence coach, Jacques Nienaber, has suggested that the All Blacks are likely to reveal a whole new focus on the dual-playmaker approach in Japan, almost as if they have been holding back somewhat in their preparations for the World Cup.

He has told of their attacking strategy as it has developed over the last two years, with a focus on how the All Blacks have been experimenting with a new attacking shape since the 2018 season. 

He has spoken of their remarkable ability to retain possession and to keep probing until a crack appears in the defensive structures of their opponents. They wait for the opportunity, and then they strike.

Of course, South Africa’s approach to playing the All Blacks in the last two years has been built on a hugely destructive defensive strategy, and the likes of Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus will be well aware that the All Blacks have been working to find the key that will unlock that Springbok system.

This is thus likely to be a game in which the two teams reveal the full extent of their tactical and strategic planning for this World Cup.

The Springboks have been playing a simplified, direct game of rugby based on two distinct tactical ploys. The first is to unleash tactical box-kicks and tactical chips over the forwards with the wings and looseforwards chasing to put pressure on the receiver and shut down counter-attacking opportunity. The second ploy is a variation of an old theme, with power forwards carrying in the midfield in support of their direct running midfield. The big change has been their willingness to keep the ball alive and to move it around during this direct phase, so different from previous iterations where the Springboks (and South African teams in general) would take the ball to ground and recycle it to play with pods of forwards off the nine. The old system was slow and easy to defend, the new system allows for much quickercontinuity of play, which tends to stretch defences with consistent pressure.

Once they have breached the defence in the midfield, the ball goes wide to their free-running wings.

South Africa have also worked hard at achieving either dominance or, at the very least, parity over the ball on the ground.

The obverse to their tactical kicking and ball-in-hand approach has been a quick and resolute defence designed to shut down opposition before they are able to mount worthwhile attacking plays. There are some issues with the hook-defence variation in this system, which allows the wings to race ahead and come in off their line – there is always a danger of being outflanked by a pinpoint loop pass or  tactical cross-kick. However, the Springboks have worked very hard at ensuring that the back-three pendulum works to cover the hole left by a rushing wing.

Of course, the All Blacks will be well aware of the Springbok tactical game, and will have been looking for methods to defeat the defence while drawing the power from the direct game.

We can expect the All Blacks to look to shift the contact point towards the midfield as much as possible when they are carrying the ball, with the intention of using Barrett and Mo’unga as their dual playmakers to go either left or right from that position. We can also expect Mo’unga to carry the ball more than usual for a New Zealand 10, with the intention of sucking Springbok defenders onto him before shifting the ball to a close supporting runner, and then for the runner to do the same, again and again, eventually releasing the ball back to Barrett to make the next play. They will certainly focus on keeping the ball alive through as many “phases” as possible, waiting for the crack in the wall defence to open up.

We can also expect plenty of tactical kicking by the All Blacks, especially if the ball is slippery in the humidity.

The contrasting styles will be interesting to watch. 

Both teams like to counter-attack out of broken play, with the All Blacks perhaps better at this phase of play as they have been doing it for many years.

South Africa are also likely to take every goal kicking opportunity as they do seem to have the edge with Pollard for the short to medium range efforts and Frans Steyn, if he comes onto the field, adding his siege gun boot to the mix.

The battles between the scrums, the lineouts and at the breakdowns have been a feature of the games between these two sides, and we can expect more of the same.  

And then there is the potential impact of the benches. Both teams have depth on the bench that is the envy of every other team in the world. 

So much depends on the form of individuals, in recent times games between these old enemies have hinged on a moment of brilliance or a half-second’s hesitancy by a single player.

There are no guarantees for either team. All we can guarantee is that this game is one a rugby fan should not miss.

Prediction

This is a game that is almost impossible to predict. Anything can and probably will happen.

For me, I will only predict that both these teams will probably be in the semi-finals come the end of the tournament.

As for this game?

I am going with the Springboks for a narrow win, but that is only because of my personal jingoistic bias.