CAPE TOWN - After years of inane platitudes from All Black coach Steve Hansen about the rivalry with the Boks after his side racked up record scores against their old foes, things changed this week.
There was a marked edge to Hansen’s comments as the All Blacks prepared to face the Springboks. It’s a stretch to say Hansen was rattled, but it was as close to it as he comes.
With the highly anticipated Pool B clash in Yokohama coming into focus, Hansen has done away with praising the Boks. Over the past two seasons, the Boks have crept into the All Blacks’ heads. And not in a good way.
Hansen bristled after Bok counterpart Rassie Erasmus suggested that referees give the All Blacks more leeway than other teams. In the past, those types of accusations were laughed off because the Boks were so far off the All Blacks’ pace that officials were the least of South Africa’s problems.
But in the past two years, the old combatants have contested four matches that have been decided by two points or fewer. The Boks are genuine rivals to the reigning world champions and Hansen was testy when his side were accused of being treated favourably by officials.
He essentially told Erasmus to pull his neck in and not put more pressure on referees because it was a tough enough job. Everywhere outside of New Zealand, that advice was met with guffaws considering it came from a man who coaches a team that couldn’t find the offside line if it were painted in day-glow pink at every ruck.
Erasmus is obviously getting under Hansen’s skin. More importantly, Erasmus’ Boks clearly have the All Blacks’ attention as the two southern hemisphere giants square off for the 99th time in Tests.
After nearly three weeks in Japan and 12 weeks into what Erasmus described as a ‘19-week journey’ to the Rugby World Cup final, the Springboks are as ready as they will ever be to face the All Blacks.
Erasmus’ meticulous planning has left nothing to chance and so far the rugby gods have been kind to the two-time world champions. The entire squad is fit and they are ready. There have been no controversies, although the aftershocks of former wing Aphiwe Dyantyi’s positive doping test are lingering.
Assistant coach Matt Proudfoot was cornered by some of the media and questioned about doping in South Africa this week. The burly former Test prop deflected the questioning considering the current squad are not on trial, but it’s a story that will keep smouldering.
It didn’t help that on Wednesday the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (Saids) released its 2018/19 annual report, which made for some damning reading for rugby. Of 1584 tests Saids conducted, 342 of those were in rugby. Of those, 16 returned positive samples, including six schoolboys at Craven Week, the prestigious annual provincial schoolboy tournament.
It represented a 4.7% positive return and most worryingly, a high percentage of the adverse samples appeared to come out of age-group rugby.
Directly, the doping issues raised in the Saids report have nothing to do with the Springboks in Japan, and most of the players were unaware of it anyway.
For the Boks their focus and preparation has been intense because they want to lay down a marker in their opening fixture. With games against Namibia, Italy and Canada to follow, it’s unlikely the Boks will miss out on the play-offs regardless of the All Black outcome.
But, as the only tier one team to go into RWC undefeated this season, the Boks want to maintain that momentum and confidence. The All Blacks have never lost a Pool match and no side has ever won a RWC after losing a Pool game. The Boks have suffered for the right to go into the tournament as genuine contenders, not only for two years leading up to this moment, but also for the past two weeks. A fortnight ago, the Boks completed their pre-tournament build-up with a 41-7 win over Japan in Kumagaya, lock Franco Mostert lost five kilograms during the match.
Japan’s heat and humidity is a factor for all the teams and the Boks have specifically looked to challenge themselves in training. Players are losing up to three kilograms a session and ‘hydration’ has been the watchword around the camp.
Having been in Japan for nearly three weeks, Erasmus took the squad to the extreme south of the country in Kagoshima following the Japan match. It’s one of the hottest and most humid cities in the country and the squad were made to suffer in 90-minute sessions in the heat and humidity.
“I wouldn’t say it (the players’ weight loss) was good or bad it’s just what happens in these conditions,” Springbok head of athletic performance Aled Walters said. “In a relatively light training session last week, Duane (Vermeulen) lost three kilos and it was raining so that’s again, something that we’ve become used to.
“Our dietician is all over our hydration and nutrition protocols which are essential and which are in place so the boys can’t be slacking off in their physical condition.
“The whole strategy has been in place for the past two weeks and the hydration plan has become a habit for the players - they’re mindful that in the morning before we do anything they monitor their indicators.”
A war of words, a war of weight and a two-year wait are over. RWC 2019 starts with a clash for the ages between two sides that have won 74 of 86 matches at the previous eight tournaments between them.
Despite 98 previous meetings, the two sides have never met in RWC Pool match. They’ve played in four previous RWC games – the score is 2-2 if you’re counting – but those have always been knockout matches.
The talking is over, the verbal jousting done. Two of the competition heavyweights are about to set the tone for the most open RWC edition in history.