Bracing for the comedown

”If you’re going to play good rugby, you will play it in South Africa. The atmosphere demands it of you.” ‒ Former All Blacks captain Colin Meads

South African rugby is feeling rather buoyant at present, and there’s good reason for this. Australia have been beaten twice in two weeks, Jake White’s plans seem to be coming together and the mood in the squad is probably the most positive it has been since winning the Tri-Nations last year. The outlook is so positive that some souls have even written off Australia completely — alluding to this year’s Tri-Nations being all but over for Eddie Jones and company. Right.

So, apart from the usual management scandals and a little car trouble, it looks like fair weather and plain sailing — unless you count the fact that the All Blacks are waiting at Newlands on Saturday. Should you add in this simple variable, it will be quite clear that there’s a lot to be apprehensive about.

Graham Henry and his squad arrived with little noise — unlike the din orchestrated by Jones and his outfit — and have set about their preparations with a sense of quiet professionalism. Instead of stooping to verbal slanging, the All Blacks have had nothing but praise for their opponents. Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield and Jean de Villiers have all been liberally honeyed up.

Suddenly, after two wins over Australia in South Africa, the Springboks are being championed as the smartest, strongest, fittest and most creative side in world rugby by the smartest, strongest, fittest and most creative side in world rugby.

This should not be cause for celebration.

The side that beat Australia in Pretoria last week is kept largely intact for the Test at Newlands on Saturday, with only three changes.

Os du Randt will play at loosehead, with Gurthro Steenkamp moving to the bench. Steenkamp has been something of a revelation on the park and is a great future talent.

Jacques Cronje moves on to the bench to make way for Joe van Niekerk who, at number eight, will be playing in his favoured position. Ricky Januarie, another player who has taken to international rugby with real vim, is in at scrumhalf.

He replaces Fourie du Preez, a player who has been unable to show consistently the form that made him so dangerous last year. Burger also returns as fetcher to combat tough-as-nails open-side Richie McCaw, while Juan Smith will have to contend with muscle-city Jerry Collins.

The tussle between the halfbacks will be a crucial one, and one feels that the Springboks are probably at a slight disadvantage. Byron Kelleher at scrumhalf for the All Blacks has immense experience and is every bit as tough and tenacious as Januarie. Flyhalf Daniel Carter is talented, quick and combines great vision and hands — the Springboks’ fortunes will hinge on how well he is closed down. Januarie has been selected to do what he did in the second Test against France earlier this season, and if he manages to disrupt either Kelleher or Carter, things might just go South Africa’s way.

Jacque Fourie and Jean de Villiers were less effective last week than they were in Johannesburg, but this had more to do with slow phase ball and a wholly different Australian backline approach than anything else. What is most worrying is how inexperienced the Bok centre pairing is, compared with Tana Umaga and Aaron Mauger.

The Springboks’ domination of the line-outs against Australia is unlikely to continue at Newlands — Ali Williams and Chris Jack are world-class locks and Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield will not be given the same freedom they enjoyed for the past two outings.

The feeling is that this crop of All Blacks is very much in the mould of their illustrious predecessors of the late 1960s and early 1970s — a side that included Meads, Brian Lochore, Chris Laidlaw and Ian Kirkpatrick, to name a few. That outfit was, for a long time, the finest rugby team in the world and only met defeat on a bruising and bloody 1970 tour to South Africa. The Springbok squad for the 1970 tour included players such as Joggie Jansen, Frik du Preez, Piet Visagie and Jan Ellis.

The fact that the All Blacks won their only Test on tour 9-8 at Newlands on August 8, should remind Bok supporters that Cape Town doesn’t treat visiting sides as poorly as Johannesburg, Bloemfontein or Pretoria. There is little doubt that the Springboks are a fine and talented side, but expecting them to nail the All Blacks after three tough games against Australia and with a relatively inexperienced team is asking for trouble.

The visitors are favourites because they are organised, experienced and well-drilled, and have excellent players in every position. And if you think that’s blarney, watch those Lions tapes again.

My advice is to hope for the best, but expect — well — the worst. Only those foolhardy to the point of catatonia would expect a victory like the one in Johannesburg two weeks ago, but don’t write the South Africans off completely.

They’re young, talented, hungry and have a point to prove, and if history’s in loop mode, they might just manage a giant-slaying act the likes of which was last seen 35 years ago. I certainly hope they do.

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