The days of New Zealand and South Africa dishing up dour, forward-based slug-fests are over, according to the rival coaches who are forecasting an attacking clash in Wellington on Saturday.
Forward battles between New Zealand and South Africa are legendary, none more so than in 1956 when New Zealand put heavyweight boxing champion Kevin Skinner into the front row to quell an intimidating Springboks pack and went on to win their first series against South Africa.
But according to Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus, this week’s teams may front up physically at the start but the All Blacks’ counter-attacking skills will soon kick in.
“Everyone always says it’s a physical battle between the Springboks and the All Blacks but the way the All Blacks are currently playing there’s so much finesse in their game, there’s so much taking small opportunities,” Erasmus said.
He said that while New Zealand’s Tests against Australia and Argentina looked close, “on the small margins they get they really pounce and they score, where we currently are creating opportunities and throw them out the window every single time.
“Obviously both teams will have to pitch physically (on Saturday) because that’s New Zealand, South Africa rugby but then I think we have to capitalise on the opportunities like New Zealand do if we want to have a chance in this game.”
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said he expected South Africa to respond with an aerial bombardment — and even suggested that his reigning world champions were the underdogs.
A bonus-point win to New Zealand in the fourth-round Rugby Championship match would see the All Blacks defend their crown with two matches to spare.
It would also inflict a third consecutive defeat on the South Africans who arrived in New Zealand following back-to-back losses to Argentina and Australia as Erasmus tries to embrace a new style of play.
Springboks ‘probably the favourites’
While the Springboks have only made four changes to their line-up, the All Blacks have altered 15 of their match-day 23.
Among the changes, Hansen has moved to counter the Springboks’ expected kicking game with Jordie Barrett returning to fullback, Ben Smith moving to the right wing and speedster Rieko Ioane returning from injury to fill the left wing slot.
“It’s an aerial game and we’ve got two big aerial athletes,” he said. “We don’t have to explain why Reiko’s there. He’s best player in his position in the world, I think. He’ll give us some genuine gas.”
Despite South Africa’s poor run of form, Hansen said it was important for the All Blacks to remember their narrow one-point victory the last time the two sides met.
“The last one could have gone either way. They should probably be the favourites, I reckon,” he added.
“We know that South Africa are going to be desperate to put a performance on the park. Very rarely do they lose twice in a row, let alone three times in a row.”
Despite the All Blacks recording bonus-point wins in their first three matches of the series, Hansen admitted to only being “reasonably happy”, partly because of concerns about their high error rate.
“You’ve got to have the mindset which is that of the underdog. If you sit at the top and say ‘we’re going good here’, you won’t be there for too long,” he said.
“I accept that we’re going okay and you don’t want to take away that fact, but you also have to accept the facts that ‘we’re not doing that right and we’re not doing that right’.”
But Erasmus took nothing from Hansen’s rating of the All Blacks.
“He’s actually putting more pressure on us to not lose three in a row. We are under the pump,” he said.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle against a team that’s number one in the world and they dictate almost every facet of the game.”
© Agence France-Presse