Kiwis regard Soweto as season defining
If the All Blacks have arrived in South Africa feeling they have no more worlds to conquer after clinching the Castle Rugby Championship last week, they have done a good job of pretending that the opposite is true.
Far from seeing Saturday’s big showdown between the two giants of world rugby as a dead-rubber test – something that may have cost the All Blacks victory in a similar situation in Rustenburg in 2006 – Richie McCaw’s team appear to be approaching the FNB Stadium match as the one that will define their first season post winning their second World Cup.
“We have achieved a lot this year but we feel if we lose on Saturday a lot of the progress we have been making will have gone to waste and it will all amount to nothing,” said All Black No 8 Kieran Read.
Asked if he really meant that and that a defeat to the Boks would deflate an All Black season that has seen them win every game they have played, Read thought for a moment before responding, but gave pretty much the same answer.
“Yeah, definitely, if you want to be recognised as the best you can’t just win at home. I know we won in Argentina last week, but this is a particularly big challenge for us and it doesn’t come much bigger than playing the Springboks at a venue like this. It’s a very important game for us.”
Of course the All Blacks have a record in their sights. If they win on Saturday it will be their 16th victory on the trot, which will put them one away from the All Black record and two away from the world record currently held by Lithuania.
“Breaking the record would mean a lot to us as it would mean we are right up there with the best, but we have to concentrate on the task at hand, and we must do the little things that we need to do to ensure we keep our winning momentum.
"Winning on Saturday would mean a clean sweep in this competition and that would bring a lot of satisfaction,” said Read.
“Winning against the Boks in Soweto will solidify where we are, it will confirm our status. We want to be the top team, we want to be the No 1 team in the world, and beating the Boks will confirm that.
"(Coach) Steve Hansen sets high standards, and he has been working hard this week at finding ways to ensure that we retain our intensity and that we are ready mentally.”
Last week the All Blacks reportedly had a really brutal physical training session on the Thursday before the Argentina test.
Read doesn’t think they will do it again, but feels that the team will find a way to retain the edge that is needed ahead of a match against South Africa in South Africa.
“We only flew in a few days ago and we played a hard test last week but we do need to create some kind of edge. Ahead of a game like this it is good to put your body through a bit of hurt during the process of getting yourself mentally ready,” he said.
Having said all of that, and how hungry the All Blacks are to win on Saturday, Read agrees that complacency is something that the team has to actively try and keep away.
“No matter how much you talk about it and say that you want to do something, sometimes when you have achieved something it can relax you psychologically and we are very wary of that,” said the No 8.
It’s not something that Hansen is likely to let happen though, as he made it clear at the team announcement press conference on Thursday that this is one of the big games of his career.
“The bigger the challenge the more fun it is, and for me personally this is one of the really big games,” said Hansen.
“As a child these were the great games, and I remember watching them. I wouldn’t say we are looking at it because of the record that we may end up breaking, and the pressure isn’t really different to what it usually is as every game the All Blacks play they are expected to win. Playing the Boks over here is always massive.
“While the modern rugby player can play anywhere and gets used to playing in different environments, this is a venue that players do get excited about. I know our team is excited about playing there, and I am sure the Boks are too.
"I am not sure if playing there is an advantage to any team, all I see is people getting really excited about the ground and the challenge it brings.”