A changing of the guard or a World Cup final warm-up?

Today’s meeting between New Zealand and South Africa will be their 99th.

A changing of the guard or a World Cup final warm-up?

Today’s meeting between New Zealand and South Africa will be their 99th.

No-one would be shocked if they were to bring that up to the century when this same venue hosts the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in just over six weeks’ time but this is no mere trial run. It can’t be when these two breathe the same air.

The Bok-Blacks rivalry had lost its bite. A story that had been drained by overexposure in the Tri-Nations all but disappeared down the plughole when the All Blacks somehow managed to get better and better as their old buddies collapsed into chaos.

The last year has changed that.

The astute management of Rassie Erasmus and a return to some coaching basics has restored the lustre of the two-time champions. Their defeat of New Zealand in Wellington last year, a first there in two decades, prompted the rebirth and a trio of epic, close meetings since has left this one beautifully poised as Pool B opens for business.

“We’ve known about this fixture for a hell of a long time,” said Tendai Mtawarira.

“We have embraced it and looked forward to it. One of the big challenges in anyone’s rugby career is to face the All Blacks. It is a massive challenge, but we believe in the progress we’ve made in the past couple of months and how hard we’ve worked.”

The South Africans have leveraged this rediscovered equilibrium cleverly this week. Erasmus and his coaches have made repeated pleas for referees to “respect” the game and treat New Zealand the same as every other side now that they are no longer the top-ranked outfit in the world - deflecting from queries over the perceived drug culture in their own back yard as a result.

That the goalposts have shifted seems undeniable.

The Boks, after so many years of flux and fumbling, are the more settled of the two. Their half-back combination of Handre Pollard and Faf De Klerk have played together more times, 12, than any other nine/ten South African pairing in the last five years. Captain Siya Kolisi for Kwagga Smith at six is the only change from the side that earned a draw in Wellington in July.

It’s their opponents who have more questions to answer.

Steve Hansen has gone for form over reputation with young wingers George Bridge and Seevu Reece preferred to Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane.

This is a big day for both but the same could be said for a midfield that has chopped and changed through this four-year cycle while the use of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga as dual playmakers remains a work in progress.

New Zealand are missing Brodie Retallick and there are new combinations being used in the back row. All told, this is the youngest All Black XV to be fielded since the 2011 World Cup final. Hansen has spoken about the fact that he wants to ‘do different things with different’ people at this tournament so expect faces to change.

The All Blacks have been vulnerable this last year. They have drawn one and lost two of their seven games stretching back to, and including, the defeat to Ireland in Dublin last November.

The Lions demonstrated as far back as 2017 that they struggle against the type of rush defence the Springboks have embraced to such good effect.

Add in a litany of exceptional individual talent, an ability to strike on the counter and the sheer physicality of the pack and the Boks possess plenty of weapons with which to inflict damage on a Kiwi side that can’t quite match them or England for sheer, raw power. Kieran Read would disagree with that last claim but he knows full well what is coming: “The same,” said the skipper. “What they do, they do really well, being physical, kicking well, accruing points when they’re on offer, using their strengths, which is their maul, and now they’ve got the ability to play off counter-attack and off turnover ball from their backs. We know what’s coming and I think we’re in a good place to put out a plan that’s going to match them.”

Stitch all that together and it seems to make a strong case for the Boks. Really, all it does is confirm that they are in with a shot.

That’s incredible progress given it is just two years since they suffered a record 57-0 loss in North Harbour. Former captain Jean De Villiers said afterwards that they had been outplayed in every department.

That won’t happen here.

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