The rivalry between the Springboks and All Blacks will enter unfamiliar territory next week as the New Zealanders go into the Rugby Championship opener with their backs against the wall, writes DYLAN JACK.
Four out of five Tests lost, a first home series loss since 1994, two assistant coaches made the fall guys and sacked, with only one of those coaches replaced. It’s fair to say the past few months have been disastrous for the All Blacks.
So often the Goliath of Test rugby, the trendsetters who everyone wants to follow, it’s hard to think of a time when New Zealand was in this much turmoil.
It has given one of the game’s greatest rivalries a unique twist. For the first time in over a decade, it will be South Africa who are firm favourites against New Zealand, based on current form and home-ground advantage.
The last time the Springboks were in a similar position was after they won four out of five Tests against the All Blacks between 2008 and 2009, stretching back to that famous victory in Dunedin, courtesy of Ricky Januarie’s 75th-minute try.
It is important to note that New Zealand then responded by taking their rugby up a level and from there went on to win 15 of their next 17 matches, reaffirming their dominance in the rivalry.
So often, it has been the Springboks who have come into this fixture with something to prove. In the year prior to the 1995 World Cup final, the Boks had suffered a home series loss to New Zealand.
Before Nick Mallett’s arrival as Bok coach in 1997, New Zealand had won six out of seven games against South Africa. When Jake White took the reins in 2004, the Springboks were in the worst-ever run of eight straight losses to the All Blacks.
In the two years before the Peter de Villiers era, the Springboks had tasted victory only twice in eight Tests, while Heyneke Meyer only once beat New Zealand during his stint as Bok coach.
It’s fair to say that the Springboks have always been the traditional underdogs in this rivalry and have used that mentality to fire themselves up in some of their most recent wins.
That’s what makes next week’s game in Nelspruit so fascinating. Playing at a stadium where they have never lost and facing a team in as much disarray as the All Blacks, it’s hard to see how the Springboks can assume their traditional role.
Of course, the Boks will know that there are individuals in this All Blacks team who are capable of punishing any sort of error and scoring from anywhere on the field. Just look at Will Jordan’s try in the third Test against Ireland, for example.
Suddenly, it is the All Blacks who are playing with a back-against-the-wall mentality and that could make them dangerous in the next two Tests.
The Boks cannot afford to be lulled into a position of false security going into this Rugby Championship. They themselves know that a wounded team is a deadly team, that a poor run of results and criticism from outside the camp can galvanise a team, such as the heavy artillery aimed at the supposed ‘boring’ gameplan under Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber.
It may be a tactically deficient All Blacks team running out at the Mbombela Stadium on 6 August, one that doesn’t measure up to the standards that have been set before them. But, make no mistake, this is a team that won’t lack for any motivation and they may benefit from, for once, being the underdogs.
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