South Africa’s games against the All Blacks last year were merely a few of the collisions the Springboks endured during the trainwreck that was their 2016. For their rivals, the 41-13 no contest and the 57-15 Durban hammering were brief side attractions en route to grabbing the Rugby Championship with a perfect record.
The silverware and subsequent 18-Test winning streak seemed to allay any fears that rugby’s best would have to navigate transitional waters. New Zealand had savagely defended the World Cup the year before, leaving it clear who the dominant force in the world was.
But the tournament’s conclusion also saw the end of some influential international careers. Perhaps most notable, 2015 World Rugby Player of the Year Dan Carter called it a day. After the disappointment of missing the previous final on home soil because of injury, the Crusaders legend forced victory home with crucial drop goals, atypical of that All Blacks team, against the Springboks in the semis and Australia in the final.
Following him out the door was his captain, Richie McCaw. Between the two, they have claimed the sport’s top individual prize six times. Add in icon Ma’a Nonu, whose 40m try in that Wallabies game is forever etched in memory, and Kiwi dominance, at least on paper, didn’t appear so undisputed.
But Steve Hansen’s men didn’t like that narrative and went about dismantling all put before them. At the centre of much of the glory was star fly half Beauden Barrett, who decided to put together his own World Player of the Year run. After guiding the Hurricanes to a commanding Super Rugby title in 2016, he then set about making the No 10 jersey firmly his own. Carter’s empty boots, if not filled, were at the very least compensated for.
But things haven’t quite gone to plan this year. The All Blacks keep winning for the most part, but that untouchable aura has been largely eroded. A 1-1 tie against the British and Irish Lions in their own backyard was a warning sign.
That signal would have become a full-blown siren after the All Blacks’ performance against Argentina last Saturday. The Pumas led until the 60th minute in New Plymouth, only losing a grip on the game after Vivea Fifita’s stunning debut try. Devoid of ideas for much of the game, the Kiwis struggled to turn possession into sustained pressure, conceding 21 turnovers in the process.
Much of the creativity drain can be attributed to Barrett himself, whose off-colour 2017, by his standards, has coincided with his team’s. On Saturday he failed to control the game in any meaningful way. His attempts to manipulate the tempo fell flat and his few attempted errand stabs at the ball inevitably failed.
Not helping his cause was Damian Mckenzie at full-back, who found great difficulty in containing the high ball. The diminutive 22-year-old has found himself in line to put together a string of international caps after an impressive few seasons with the Chiefs in Super Rugby. An injury to Beauden’s brother, Jordie Barrett, and a Ben Smith sabbatical have only strengthened his chances.
He’s a magical player, capable of bursting through the opposition on a dime — he set up Nehe Milner-Skudder’s try and grabbed one himself against the Pumas. But if he can’t find more composure under sustained opposition bombing he will likely find himself labelled as more of a liability than an asset.
One suggestion doing the rounds is to bring in Lima Sopoaga at No 10. The Highlanders’ man brought with him a smooth composure when he came on at the Yarrow Stadium, not to mention a reliable goal-kicking boot. Barrett could then move to full-back, where greater freedom could potentially help him to rediscover his form.
Hansen is not sold on the idea but he did indicate it would probably come to fruition mid-game this weekend. “Do we want to have both of them in at the same time? No, not to start, we won’t. Having them both on the field at the end of the game is a real possibility because it’s happened most of the time.”
For the time being at least, the All Blacks seem to be putting all their hopes on Barrett returning to consistent greatness, in turn equally elevating the team.
“We saw how Argentina did it, and Beaudy caught the brunt of it,” lock Brodie Retallick reflected. “But it’s not really Beaudy’s fault. It’s what the boys are doing around him. We need to be better at communicating the space to give Beaudy the options.”
It’s clear that this is a team in flux, if not quite in transition. The addition of skilful players such as McKenzie and Fifita has the potential for a big pay-off but for now they will have question marks over them.
Back row Vaea Fifita scored a try for the All Blacks this morning that’s got everybody talking.
— Rugby Lives (@RugbyLives) September 9, 2017
This opens up beautifully for the Boks, who are surely heading into the game with a load more confidence than they have had in recent times. New Zealand emerged victorious from the encounter nine times in their past 10 meetings, with their last home defeat coming in 2009. Allister Coetzee will be hoping to pounce on any self-doubt, in the back row or otherwise. His side still face the best team in the world but identity issues give the green and gold their best opportunity in recent memory.
After a gritty display in the 23-23 draw in Perth, New Zealand certainly won’t be underestimating anyone.
“We have seen the last couple of weeks how physical they have been, especially up front. As always, they’re big boys and they like to come at you,” said Retallick, looking ahead to the clash between two teams separated by three points on the log.
“They’ll be coming here with a bit of anger and, with the skill and physicality they’re playing with, I’m sure it’s going to be a good spectacle.”