“It is the Test match that every kid wants to play in.” A veteran All Black, with two World Cup medals to his name, Sam Whitelock knows the deal. It doesn’t get much bigger than this. Renewing one of rugby’s oldest and fiercest rivalries, New Zealand and South Africa go head to head this Saturday in what promises to be a seismic collision between two of the sport’s biggest heavyweights.
Any encounter between these great nations is never short of daring brilliance and drama, but when contextualised within the framework of a World Cup group stage match, this weekend’s encounter carries an altogether different dynamic.
Victory in Yokohama will more or less guarantee a first-place finish in Pool B. Given the quality of the rest of the group – Italy, Canada and Namibia – it remains a two-way shoot-out between the Springboks and the All Blacks.
As such, neither team can afford to adopt a tentative approach for Saturday’s opener. Compared to their title rivals in Japan – who open their campaigns against the likes of Tonga and Fiji – there’s no time to test the water, to determine the suitability of certain formations and combinations. No such luxury will be on offer. This is all-out war, with both sides fully aware of what is riding on the fixture.
Then there’s the psychological aspect to take into consideration. Ever since South Africa were humiliated in that 57-0 defeat in North Harbour two years ago, there’s been very little to separate each side. The All Blacks claimed a 25-24 victory in Cape Town a month after that thumping before South Africa hit back with a 36-34 triumph last September. A 32-30 win in New Zealand’s favour followed in October before a 16-16 draw was played out in Wellington earlier this year. The margins have been as fine as they can get, pointing to two teams locked in an arm wrestle for supremacy.
“Our last three matches have ended in stalemate, one win each and a draw, for an aggregate score of 82-82,” said South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus this week. “You couldn’t say there is a favourite.”
Win in Yokohama, then, and that struggle for dominance will be temporarily settled, with the victor mentally equipped to push on and challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup. Defeat, though, will be dangerous and potentially destabilising in effect.
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While the All Blacks’ ability to bounce back from adversity – their recent nilling of Australia on the back of a difficult summer is testament to this – suggests they could recover from such a setback, it’s less clear how the South Africans would fare in the wake of a group-stage defeat at the hands of their rivals, especially if’s a heavy one. And given how far they’ve come in recent years, to fall flat when it mattered most would be a hard pill to swallow.
Still, optimism is high among the Springboks. With a total of 919 caps in their match-day squad, and an average age of 27 for the well-balanced starting XV, it’s been a long time since South Africa looked this settled heading into a World Cup.
“We’ve found some consistency and some momentum in a number of ways this season,” said Erasmus. “And one of them is in selection.
“They [the players] have emerged together over the past 18 months as our game has developed and matured.”
The All Blacks, in contrast, seemed to have moved in the opposite direction ahead, with their dip in form stretching back as far as autumn of last year. After narrowly edging past England at Twickenham, they were beaten by Ireland for a second time one week later. That preceded a disappointing summer, which saw the side draw with South Africa and lose to Australia, to reaffirm the suggestion that New Zealand’s aura of invincibility had been punctured.
And while the South Africans look to have figured out their best starting XV, the same cannot be said for the world champions. Steve Hansen has opted to deploy the dual playmaker approach for Saturday’s game, with Richie Mo’unga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15, but it remains to be seen how this nascent set-up will fare under the stresses and strains of World Cup rugby. The time for experimentation is over. There can be no excuses now. This tandem may tick many boxes but it simultaneously poses a gamble – one that could reap rich rewards or hinder New Zealand’s cause.
With so many narratives and dimensions to indulge in, as well as the historical sense of grandiose that coats the fixture, it’s easy to see why this showdown in Yokohama is generating a rising wave of excitement. As Hansen said earlier this week, “the older guys know what is coming.” We all do for that matter.