Teams primed ahead of All Blacks v Springboks clash
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 16: Anton Lienert-Brown of the All Blacks makes a break during the Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South African Springboks at QBE Stadium on September 16, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

With the teams ‘primed’ and ready to restart the longstanding rivalry, Saturday night sees another All Blacks v Springboks clash at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium.

Round Four of the 2018 Rugby Championship brings the two powers of Southern Hemisphere rugby together, for another Test match. The visitors might not have the awesome attacking ability, as they had in 2009 (as an example). Yet the hosts still naturally respect their opponents, ahead of the 96th fixture between the two sides.

Yet while respect in rugby is one value that can separate it from sports like Football or Tennis, it will still see the current World Champions enter the match as heavy favourites. Sports betting agencies will find it hard to offer any more than $1:50 odds, on a strong All Blacks squad.

New Zealand name ‘close to strongest’ Test XV

Steve Hansen has not hesitated in returning both Sam Cane and Ryan Crotty, back into his starting XV. Each has overcome similar injuries, and while the concussion protocols may have been observed, it is still a sensitive return for the All Blacks center.

Enquired as to during the regular player interviews held by the All Blacks, Ryan Crotty was asked how the recovery had progressed – since he was knocked out, clashing heads with Jack Goodhue. He replied that he was feeling fit and ready to start. “In saying that, I’ve gone through all the processes, been extremely diligent around this last one and I’m really confident. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be there, so I’m really excited to be back playing and just can’t wait to get back out there in the test match arena.”

The HIA assessment and the considerable focus on player welfare now, reinforces that player’s importance to the team; as does Sam Cane’s recall. Each being players that are worth waiting on; not to be forced to return until they are ready. While doing so shows loyalty, their replacements had performed more than admirably. So both Ardie Savea and Anton Lienert-Brown are also included in the squad.

Sam Cane starts ahead of Ardie Savea, but after the performance against Argentina, Savea is now a strong challenger to his more senior teammate’s place. This internal competition means that although Shannon Frizell is not considered, it is more to do with the options on the bench, rather than a less than satisfactory summary of his game last Saturday night.

In other changes, Beauden Barrett naturally returns, with Rieko Ioane also returning to the left wing. Jordie Barrett gets his call to begin in another Test where three Barrett boys begin a match. So Ben Smith is on the right wing; in place of Waisake Naholo.

Late withdrawal of Sonny Bill a blessing for Lienert-Brown

When the above team was named, Sonny Bill Williams was named. Unfortunately, he has been withdrawn and replaced by Jack Goodhue. It is – in a sardonic way – a blessing for Anton Lienert-Brown. One player’s misfortune [in team sports] can be the opportunity that another can benefit from. So with the Chiefs midfielder having had positive feedback on his last few runs as a replacement, the opportunity to start is to be grasped with both hands.

The SBW return was going to be that players chance to reinforce his importance to the group. Yet he is again unlucky, in a year where he has only played in one test so far. Steve Hansen put it this way: “The plan was to bring Sonny back off the bench, but unfortunately he’s got crook so that plan went out the window and Jack’s had to come back.

“But Alby [Lienert-Brown] has been playing well, hasn’t he, and he deserves his spot anyway.”

The 23-year-old can resume his partnership with Ryan Crotty. One that they have performed successfully in against many International sides, So between Lienert-Brown, Crotty, Sonny Bill, Goodhue, and the injured Ngani Laumape, a group of five or six players are competing for two starting places.

So like the Beauden Barrrett/Aaron Smith, or Sam Whitelock/Brodie Retallick pairings, any injury can interrupt such combinations. Luckily for All Blacks fans, the recent shoulder injury to Retallick – while a huge blow for the most-capped locking duo – it gives Scott Barrett another chance to show his skillset. And with that, the incoming Patrick Tuipolotu a run in the black jersey.

Auckland and Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu brought onto Bench

He is coming off a hattrick of tries, scored for Auckland last Friday night, so will be full of confidence. As rare as a Springboks win in New Zealand, the focus on the performance of replacements is both an example of the many options, as much as a hurdle for the oppositions teams’ objectives.

Tuipulotu’s return is from an injury that, similarly to Nehe Milner-Skudder, was one that has limited his time in the black jersey. Unfortunate to miss the June Internationals, fit and current form mean that Tuipolotu is a better option off the bench than Jackson Hemopo. Better than to use Liam Squire in a lock/flanker role, however, Tuipolotu could cover number six if necessary, in a squad where versatility is a godsend.

Change isn’t always necessary yet, it is hard to argue with the changing All Blacks lineups success over the last six test match results. Consistent winning will see this group [possibly] able to hold-up The Rugby Championship title after the game Saturday….with still two matches to be played!

That dominance is a consistency which Steve Hansen and captain Kieran Read have enjoyed for three seasons. Since the retirement of Richie McCaw, this side has exceeded an 90% winning ratio – and in fact, are lifting that metric, above every other team in World Rugby.

If only coaching staffs like their opposition could have the luxury of bringing in such qualified replacements….rather than always having to repair wounds suffered, in repeated losses.

Springboks have more to gain, yet so much more to lose

The announced 23 South African players are a very good ones. Any All Blacks supporter who discards Saturday night’s challenge is being foolish. With a yellow card or worse, a poor night’s kicking or even bad weather in Wellington, it could all play into Rassie Erasmus’s men’s hands.

Springboks: Willie le Roux, Jesse Kriel, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Warren Whiteley, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (c), Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff.

Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira, Wilco Louw, RG Snyman, Francois Louw, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, Cheslin Kolbe.

Few can imagine that the above group has the power to outlast the New Zealand side though. The hosts seem too organized and too confident. The latter factor missing from the playing Springboks – and very much bereft in their coaching group it seems.

This week, the cry from Springboks assistant coaching staffs was that their heads were ‘on the block’ if they lost. All the while, still enthusing about the culture and momentum of selection and playing stocks, that might prove a factor in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. To many in South Africa, these meek views of Erasmus and his management echo the lament of Alister Coetzee. In his last visit to New Zealand, he observed how the side had ‘turned a corner’. One week later…. and his men were beaten 57-0.

For supporters of rugby in the Republic, the All Blacks v Springboks is the panacea of rugby. It does not get any better than that. Yet their side has a big hill to climb on Saturday night. The returning Handre Pollard and Malcolm Marx may help, but it seems that the Springboks have more to gain, yet so much more to lose.

Nigel Owens to referee All Blacks v Springboks

Another interesting aspect of this test match, are the match officials. This includes the premier whistleblower in World Rugby, Nigel Owens. His scheduling for this All Blacks v Springboks clash is both an endorsement of his credentials, but also a charge for the referee to be at his best. It could as much be a ‘test’ for the Welshman.

Perform well, and – like the All Blacks ranking – he will retain his place as the first name mentioned when any possible referee might be named to control a Rugby World Cup final, is discussed.

Aside from the official’s ramifications, it will be important that both teams adapt to the interpretations of this referee and his assistants. The subtlety of Southern Hemisphere rugby is now not too far away from  that of the northern hemisphere, yet any Test match is a mark higher again. Higher than Super Rugby to be honest, so the grouping of Owens, Frenchman Pascal Gauzere and Australia’s Nic Berry, must all be as clear as possible with players.

England’s Rowan Kitt will be the television match official (TMO) which is a vital part of the modern game. His role will be as significant as any of the men running the game. The hint of any indiscretion will be magnified by the TMO and his views on the requests from Nigel Owens.

An All Blacks v Springboks test could draw a huge worldwide audience. So the match must be an exemplar for the laws and the application of the law book. However, as any game has when Nigel Owens is in control, be aware that his humility and humour which will always shine through.

If any opportunity is available to ‘have a laugh’ then the Welshman will be the first to smile.

And during this All Blacks v Springboks clash – even with all the pressures involved of International Rugby – it is a pleasure to also celebrate both the occasion, and to enjoy the fixture for what it truly is.

Rugby heaven.

New Zealand v South Africa – 7:35pm (NZT) Westpac Stadium, Wellington

 

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