It would be easy to list the reasons the All Blacks are suddenly vulnerable. They are in the middle of a round trip from New Zealand, having flown to South Africa this week from Argentina. They were tested by the Pumas, although the scoreline suggests otherwise. They are on the cusp of greatness thanks to a 16-match winning streak, so nervous tension should be evident. They are, after all, men and not gods.
To expand on the theme of vulnerability, the All Blacks are not in the habit of underestimating the Springboks. At last year’s World Cup South Africa lost to Japan, but pushed New Zealand to the brink of elimination when going down 20-18 at the semifinal stage. It has been said many times that form is irrelevant when these two great rivals meet.
There is even a little frisson evident in the visitors’ build-up this week, with several players unhappy about being left out in the quest to give experience to fringe players. When you have achieved so much for your country, it is understandably hard to be told that you are not needed this time.
But even with all of the foregoing, no rugby person in their right mind gives South Africa a chance.
It is not the beginning of the end but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning in Allister Coetzee’s time at the helm.
The Springbok coach will not face the same quality of opposition again until this time next year. He will have three weeks to prepare for the post-season tour to Europe and will use that time to ponder the future of a few players.
The problem is that once Coetzee starts wielding the axe, where does he stop? Adriaan Strauss showed signs of a return to form against Australia last week but, having announced his pending international retirement, what would be the point of taking him on tour? At the very least, it ought to be conceded that the captaincy must change hands.
There is scarcely a Springbok forward who should be assured of his place in the medium term, although Julian Redelinghuys looks like the best tighthead available and needs to stay fit. But most would concede that the real problems begin when the ball leaves the set pieces.
The injury to Rudy Paige last week cut short a promising display and Morné Steyn did nothing wrong against the Wallabies. Beyond the halfbacks, however, it’s a mess, something that always seemed likely once Coetzee began experimenting with the idea of picking players out of position.
It was thrown into sharp relief against the Wallabies, when Paige’s injury brought on the kind of reshuffle that President Jacob Zuma can only dream about. Francois Hougaard went from wing to scrumhalf, Jaco Kriel moved to fill the vacancy on the wing and Willem Alberts took the Lions man’s spot on the flank.
It might be argued that this specific moment, late in the third quarter, represented everything that is wrong with the current set-up. The pack is not pulling (or pushing) its weight, so Coetzee put six forwards on the bench. Once the two backline replacements, Lionel Mapoe and Willie le Roux, had been used, the coach had nowhere to go.
This kind of muddled thinking will not do against New Zealand. Every player should know what is expected of him. Instead, the majority will be looking over their shoulders, wondering whether the time to be stood down has arrived.
Unfortunately for the coach, the Currie Cup sides are not filled with players kicking down the door to be let in. There is significant talent overseas, but right now it cannot be picked.
So it is incumbent on this week’s squad to find a way to be competitive. The weather forecast suggests a damp build-up and match day, which should enable the Boks to slow the game down and concentrate on the set pieces. Strauss may no longer be the midfield bulldozer of the past, but he can be relied on to find his jumpers in the line-outs and to scrum strongly.
The key to stopping the All Black juggernaut is to deny them quick ball in broken play. It is vital, therefore, to avoid the long and meaningless kicks that have become such a blight on the South African game at domestic and international level. Possession should be earned, not given.
Ominously, the Boks came off second best against the Wallabies in possession and territory, despite winning the game. Similar statistics will add up to an emphatic New Zealand win this week. But recent history suggests that that emphatic win will come regardless of what the Boks bring to the party at King’s Park.
The All Blacks won the tournament with two games to spare and have scored 29 tries in five games. By contrast, the Boks have won two out of five and scored eight tries.
It is suggested that the match will be played in front of a full house; sadly, and perhaps uniquely in the history of rugby in this country, a good proportion of the seats will be occupied by those who have come to watch the opposition.