The great rivalry between the Springboks and the All Blacks was severely diluted by the arrival of professionalism in 1996, but the nadir came 20 years later. Allister Coetzee’s Boks were awful for much of 2016, but they were particularly so against New Zealand. They lost 41-13 in Christchurch and 57-15 in Durban.
So it should have come as a pleasant surprise to the tourists this week that the New Zealand public wants them to succeed. For what point is there in a rivalry that is too one-sided? Since the two nations started playing each other every year since 1996, the Springboks have won just 12 games to the 33 of the All Blacks. In other words, they win about one in four.
Over the past decade, the All Blacks have played a game on an entirely different level from the rest of the world. Consequently, they seem to have become a little bored. They wish to be tested. It’s not that the hosts would like to lose in Albany on Saturday, but they would dearly like the Boks to come to the party.
If that seems a little condescending then it is up to Coetzee’s men to expose it as such. Unfortunately they will have to do so without two of their best performers in 2017, Coenie Oosthuizen and Jaco Kriel, who have returned home with injuries.
The Boks are unbeaten this year and, although the bookmakers believe that will no longer be the case after Saturday’s encounter on Auckland’s north shore, then they have at least earned the right to dream.
To beat the All Blacks, the Boks will have to step up their game, particularly their defence. All the teams the All Blacks have played this season have managed multiphase movements against them. It is when these break down that the Kiwis are at their most dangerous, with strike runners all over the field from 15 to one. This is where the defensive systems of their opponents have been found wanting.
The Boks will also need to maintain the vast improvement in their set pieces, avoid kicking the ball aimlessly and seize the opportunities.
The absence of Oosthuizen will compromise the scrum, and Kriel’s replacement will be an equally hard act to follow. The Lions flank has made more tackles (38) than anyone else in the four teams comprising the Rugby Championship. But it is his flaring pace from a standing start around the rucks that sets him apart.
It is probably fair to say that Elton Jantjies had his worst Test of the season in Perth, and the All Blacks will test the fly half’s resolve this week. They will attack his channel whenever possible and it will be incumbent on the inside backs and back-row forwards to block access to their most valuable asset.
Even if they manage to tick these boxes, the Boks may still lose on Saturday simply because this is a fine All Black side, playing at home. It is certainly true that they have been tested this year, with both the Pumas and the Wallabies taking them deep into the game before succumbing.
It may be that they are still in the fall-out zone from June’s three Test series against the British and Irish Lions, where they managed a win, a loss and a draw. It is clear that there are chinks in the armour but it needs a special side to go beyond putting the All Blacks under pressure and turn it into a win.
So the question must be posed: Is this a special Springbok team? The answer, surely, is no.
But what should be said is that a core of excellent young players has emerged. Malcolm Marx is the successor to Bismarck du Plessis and, injury permitting, should be the owner of the number two jersey until beyond the next World Cup.
Jean-Luc du Preez is a special talent, probably the best flank produced in this country since Schalk Burger, and the emergence of Franco Mostert has had exactly the required galvanising effect on the play of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
By contrast, the back line is a work in progress. There is talent there but some shuffling will be required to complement the good things going on up front. It may be that their first defeat of the season is but an appetiser for the return Test at Newlands, which looms as a far less sanguine prospect for the All Blacks.