Preview: Springboks v All Blacks
Saturday's Rugby Championship finale is being billed as the 'Test match of the year' not least because if there is one place in the world that the All Blacks will not be supremely confident, it's at Ellis Park.
Yes, the showdown in the centre of Jo'burg has all the ingredients of an epic battle: An in-form Springbok side with just the faintest whiff of their first title in four years; A home crowd baying for what they would deem revenge; The world's best side facing their greatest foes at a sold out venue - a venue that also happens to be the scene of one their darkest memories; And a home team that must push the limits of their 'safety first' approach if they are to snatch that silver and gold trophy.
In case you've been living under a rock for the past week, let's quickly recap the scenario we're dealing with here:
- South Africa must beat New Zealand by more than seven points, score four tries along the way and make sure their visitors score no more than three of their own in order to win the Rugby Championship for the first time.
- New Zealand have played 38 Test matches since they last conceded four tries in a single game (against Australia in Hong Kong back in 2010).
- New Zealand have only conceded seven tries in their eight games so far this year.
- South Africa have not scored four tries against New Zealand in nine years.
- New Zealand have won seven of their last eight games against South Africa.
We all agree - claiming a four-try bonus point against New Zealand is a task which, in all fairness, is probably beyond the capabilities of any team in world rugby at the moment. But if Heyneke Meyer tells you he isn't dreaming of the conquering this mountain, he's lying.
But Meyer is not a stupid man. He knows better than anyone that going into a match against the All Blacks with a mindset of chasing tries is a recipe for disaster. Getting too loose, too soon, WILL get you punished. If the Boks are going to do the undoable, they need to do what they do best, at their best, which does not involve flinging fancy offloads inside their own half.
While Steve Hansen, Richie McCaw and the boys in Blacks will be licking their lips at the prospect of the Boks being overcome with whiteline fever, Meyer will be telling his side what he always tells them: Stick to the plan - if you build a platform, the tries will come.
It only takes four minutes to score four tries and just like in cricket where one wicket often follows another, once the gaps are pried open, the scoreboard will start ticking. A yorker with the first ball won't get you that prized wicket, no, you need to bowl four or five bouncers first...
But it's hard to get the wicket of a batsman with no obvious weaknesses. And let's be honest, it's for good reason that the All Blacks are on the brink of a 12th southern hemisphere title in 18 seasons.
Yet, despite New Zealand's unbeaten record in 2013, there are still lingering question marks about their true worth against quality opposition since the Wallabies are not up to scratch at the moment and the last clash with their nearest rivals was marred by that red card.
Indeed, Argentina have exposed a potential frailty at the set piece and the Springbok scrum is looking better than it has in years.
And then there is the Elllis Park factor. New Zealand have won only three times in 11 Tests over 85 years in the Johannesburg cauldron. The last time the Boks got a winning bonus point against the All Blacks was at Ellis Park, when they won 40-24 in 2004. Since losing the World Cup Final there in 1995, the All Blacks have returned on four occasions, losing three times.
But will New Zealand's current crop be weighed down by history? Perhaps not. With Keven Mealamu not in the squad, Andrew Hore will be the only All Black to have previous experience of playing a Test at Ellis Park.
Hansen has already spoken of the excitement within the camp of facing the challenge of beating the Boks in their own backyard. Doing so would certainly affirm their status the undisputed world leaders.
Yes, with the 2015 World Cup creeping closer, both sides have the opportunity to land a massive psychological blow. With the stakes so high, whatever the outcome, we're in a for an almighty showdown.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: After sitting on the bench against the Wallabies last week, the centre of controversy at Eden Park, Bismarck du Plessis will make a starting return and his influence has already been felt. Although Dane Coles is seen as the future in the black number two jersey, the manner in which he was dominated by Du Plessis in Auckland has forced Hansen to back Hore to counter the Sharks hooker's physicality and strong set-piece play. Du Plessis is desperate to make amends for what happened at Eden Park and Meyer has told him not to hold back. The question is whether he'll be able to colour within the lines for the hour he is expected to last. The faint hearted best look away...
For New Zealand: The scorer of the bonus-point try in La Plata that put the All Blacks in pole position, Ben Smith has been their best back this year. With seven tries in this year's competition, he is one away from breaking the single tournament record he now shares with Bryan Habana and Christian Cullen. With the game sure to open up in the closing stages, in Smith the Kiwis have the ideal man to exploit the situation.
Head-to-head: In his 120th Test, Richie McCaw's (latest) return could not be better timed. His experience will be essential in what will be his team's biggest challenge of the year. South Africa fancy their chances of targeting the breakdown battle, where Francois Louw has been the key ingredient to their success in the Meyer era. He may be the best flank the world has ever seen, but King Richie isn't getting any younger and Louw's star is shining brighter than ever.
2013: New Zealand won 32-16 at Eden Park, Auckand
2012: New Zealand won 32-16 at Soccer City, Johannesburg
2012: New Zealand won 21-11 at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
2011: South Africa won 18-5 at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
2011: New Zealand won 40-7 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2010: New Zealand won 29-22 at FNB Stadium, Johannesburg
2010: New Zealand won 31-17 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
2010: New Zealand won 32-12 at Eden Park, Auckland
2009: South Africa won 32-29 at Rugby Park, Hamilton
2009: South Africa won 31-19 at Absa Stadium, Durban
2009: South Africa won 28-19 at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
2008: New Zealand won 19-0 at Newlands
2008: South Africa won 30-28 at Carisbrook, Dunedin
2008: New Zealand won 19-8 at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Prediction: Only the very brave will ever bet against New Zealand, but this group of Springboks has matured into a complete unit over the past twelve months. The history of the venue cannot be ignored either so we'll back South Africa to edge it by three or four points but New Zealand to win the Rugby Championship overall.
Make your predictions
South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Franco van der Merwe, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Ruan Pienaar 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Sam Cane, 21 Tawera Kerr Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Charles Piutau
Date: Saturday, October 5
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Weather:24°C. Clear skies.
Kick-off: 17:00 (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens
Assistant referees: John Lacey, Leighton Hodges
Television match official: Graham Hughes
By Ross Hastie