When New Zealand run out at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on Saturday for their first Rugby Championship match, they will do so knowing that a lot has changed since the date this fixture was originally slated for: 26 September 2020.
Put simply, the mythical aura that has seemed synonymous with the All Blacks for so long has cracked. Ian Foster’s men have lost four of their last five, the nation’s worst run of form since 1998, including a first-ever series defeat to Ireland on home soil.
Assistants John Plumtree and Brad Mooar have been sacked, Foster is under serious pressure and Captain Sam Cane has been widely dismissed as undeserving of the honour. The mistake-ridden 2-1 defeat to Ireland highlighted a raft of weaknesses: an ineffective maul, a lack of fortitude in the front row, sloppy distribution in transition, and a distinct lack of creative initiative.
With a gameplan predicated on smothering every slightest hint of breathing space, the Springboks are less than ideal opponents for a rickety All Blacks side short of confidence. The Boks are a fearsome prospect at the best of times, but especially when New Zealand – despite ripping out their coach’s two right-hand men – are so outwardly insistent that only limited change is needed.
How to watch South Africa v New Zealand
- Date: Saturday 6 August
- Venue: Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
- Time: 4.05pm (BST)
- TV-channel: Sky Sports Action
- Livestream: Watch on the NOW app on mobile, tablet or smart TV (£33.99 per month; £11.98 for 24-hour pass) or via the Sky Go app for existing subscribers
- highlights: Sky Sports YouTube channel
“There are definitely some tweaks in the attack area that we are working on but some of them are just highlighting some focus points within our game that I just don’t think we got right in the last series,” Foster said. “It is not a matter of bringing in 10 new things, it is probably a matter of bringing a couple in and then honoring two or three we wanted to do anyway but didn’t do that well.”
Captain Cane echoed this sentiment, saying: “It may seem from the outside that there is a lot to fix, but in camp we have a lot of small focuses and when you get a lot of the big rocks right, then those small issues sort themselves out.”
“Focus points”, “probably”, “small focuses”.
This is no sign of the relentlessness the All Blacks need to overcome their issues just one year out from a World Cup – perhaps because their players are in too vulnerable a position to hear their coach and captain joining in the public throng for a transformed performance.
The absence of lock Brodie Retallick and wing Sevu Reece – two of the better performers against Ireland – will hurt them as Foster gambles his side’s chances against the Springbok front row on the introduction of the relatively inexperienced Samisoni Taukei’aho at hooker and Angus Ta’ avo at tighthead prop. Only two of the nine replacements survive from the Ireland game.
But although the vast bulk of the South African squad seems the same as it always has, there are changes. Kurt-Lee Arendse lines up for just his second cap on the wing, while Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard are starting as half-back partners for the first time this year. On a bench of six forwards and two backs, lock Salmaan Moerat and scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse have just five caps between them.
Moreover, this is a Springbok side who lost to Wales – themselves a team in need of narrative and momentum – for the first time in South Africa last month, though admittedly with a much-rotated XV. However, they are not insurmountable opponents without weaknesses. The All Blacks may be up against it, besieged by the myth of their shirt’s greatness – but it is a greatness that will come again, if it is really wanted.