Great rivalry goes undercover
The great outdoor rivalry between New Zealand and South Africa goes undercover this weekend.
It’s just the second time this has happened…they played indoors in Melbourne at the 2003 RWC…otherwise it’s a game of firsts.
It will be the All Blacks first test outing at the state-of-the-art Dunedin Stadium, the first meeting of the two since Port Elizabeth nearly 13 months ago, and the first under their respective new coaches.
The last three times the two great foes met in the Southern City it’s been tight, and memorable.
In 2003 Richard Bands scored surely the greatest test try by a prop when he stampeded nearly 50 metres, swatting off Carlos Spencer a couple of times along the way. Next time out on the old Carisbrook ground the All Blacks unveiled their new haka, the lead changed hands six times and it took a late Keven Mealamu try to decide one of the more intensely brutal tests I have witnessed.
And then in 2008 the Springboks made a breakthrough, winning in Dunedin for the first time in 87 years, when Ricky Januarie scored a brilliant solo try to snatch victory.
This time round the pressure will be heavy on the Boks to repeat that 2008 victory after their capitulation against Australia.
I’m still battling to understand how they could not win in Perth.
They were in control at 13-6 and had good momentum, only to throw it away.
The sin-binning of Beast Mtawarira was so unnecessary, but he clearly moved into the line of the Wallaby player and so was asking for trouble, and that proved to be a game changer because the Boks lost their momentum and the Aussies found some.
Their defence betrayed them, falling off 20 tackles and failing to mark up on Ben Alexander, allowing him to waddle over for the winning try….made him look like Richard Bands!
And even then they had the chance to win, but with three minutes left, having secured scrum ball just on their own side of halfway, they kicked it down the throat of the Wallaby fullback on his own 22.
I was watching the game with some of my colleagues, and a crowd of people who mostly seemed to want the Boks to win, and pretty much everyone was left shaking their heads.
Such errors of judgment obviously ask questions of how the team is being led on the field, but also how they are being programmed to play…kicking seems to be the default setting.
Heyneke Meyer made his name with the Bulls, and had some fantastic success, and clearly he is trying to replicate that, but it was a style that hinged on some great players who are no longer around, and teams now know fully what to expect.
The Wallabies fell off tackles too, but generally met the Boks on the advantage line and stopped them, and beyond that the kick was their only fallback option. It is a style of play that might be effective when they’re in front, but it is not come from behind rugby.
The result will have kept the wolves from Robbie Deans's door for a while, but more of that from the Boks and they will be howling for Heyneke Meyer.
I guess there’s no better way to answer the critics than with a win over the old enemy, but they will need a big improvement.
Mind you, the All Blacks may be five points clear at the top of the Rugby Championship, but they are also copping a bit of flak.
They are unbeaten after six tests this season, only one of which they looked to be in any danger of losing, and they have stretched their winning run to 13.
Most would kill to be in that position, and yet there seems to be a growing sense of frustration among New Zealanders about the way this team is performing.
It is true that the All Blacks have not played to their potential, that they are making too many mistakes, especially with their handling, and that this could cost them a game somewhere down the line, but the fact is they have still managed to place a firm grip on the Championship at the halfway stage, and can put it all but beyond reach with a win this weekend.
There were some obvious mitigating factors in their 21-5 struggle against the Pumas. Extremely difficult conditions pervaded the first half in particular, and Argentina came up with a resolute, inspired and extremely forceful effort, especially on defence.
The Pumas are not just “happy to be here”, they don’t just want to prove they deserve to be here, they are here because they want to win, and it is commendable to see a side trying hell bent to do that when others might be satisfied with damage limitation.
The new All Black coaching panel seem determined to put their own stamp on their team, taking things to a new level with a high velocity, quick passing game.
At the moment it is not totally coming off, but it will no doubt be persevered with. When and if it comes together someone will pay a terrible price for it, but on Saturday night the conditions certainly did not suit and a more tempered approach might have produced a better dividend.
Still, it had the effect of running the Pumas all over the place, and they fatigued noticeably later in the game, made a yellow card mistake under heavy pressure and the game was put way beyond doubt.
The All Blacks may get their chance to break out under the roof in Dunedin next week, although the Boks will…or at least should be, stung into a good performance by their failure in Perth.