ABs shrug off Soweto factor
Steve Hansen (AFP)
Johannesburg - The All Blacks are one win away from a perfect 12 months and complete dominance after capturing the Rugby World Cup a year ago.
Even the normally formidable challenge of playing old rivals South Africa at home hasn't worried the All Blacks, who arrived in Johannesburg with a string of 15 straight Test victories and the world and southern hemisphere crowns safely locked away.
The Springboks will rely on a powerful forward effort and a fierce home crowd at the 90 000-plus FNB Stadium in Soweto on Saturday to stop New Zealand in the final round of the Rugby Championship.
But the All Blacks have dealt with those challenges already this season, subduing the Boks in Dunedin and demolishing Argentina 54-15 in front of a rowdy crowd in La Plata to clinch the title with a game to spare.
"We've played in most places around the world and we've found that most places are the same... the lines are marked out the same way and it's got a halfway and a 22," All Black coach Steve Hansen said on Thursday, dismissing the effect of the imposing stadium - formerly known as Soccer City - and the Springbok fans. "If you go out with that mindset, it doesn't matter where it is."
New Zealand have lost no momentum under Hansen - and probably gained some - since he took over from World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry.
While Hansen and his players respect the challenge of the Springboks, he openly backed the experience and red-hot form of his team to end the championship with six wins from six.
The 54-15 demolition of the Pumas last weekend, when forwards and backs combined to devastating effect and playmaker Dan Carter returned seamlessly from injury, was an ominous display and an example of how to win in hostile atmospheres.
"We saw that in Argentina. The fans over there are fanatical and they're great for the game, (but) if you're doing things right, you can quieten them down so it becomes your place, rather than someone else's," Hansen said.
Backed up by his team's 31-8 win over Australia in Pretoria, Meyer emphasised this week that the Springboks believed they could beat the All Blacks and halt the run. South Africa were the last team to beat New Zealand, with an 18-5 success in Port Elizabeth just before the World Cup last year.
The Boks were further boosted by the promise shown by attacking young flyhalf Johan Goosen against Australia, offering South Africa an alternative to their traditional tactical kicking and forward-based gameplan.
But even so, the Boks would have to be near-perfect against their biggest rivals on Saturday, Meyer said. New Zealand also was a different proposition to the depleted Wallabies outfit at Loftus Versfeld.
"We know we have to have an 80 percent kicking record, unbelievable defence, take every single opportunity and put them under pressure," Meyer said. "It is difficult to beat them, but if you don't believe you can beat them, then there is no use going out on the field."
New Zealand made two changes to their starting XV ahead of their attempt to ram home the No 1 ranking with a second win this season over their closest rivals in the IRB world ratings. Lock Brodie Retallick and wing Hosea Gear came in for Luke Romano and Julian Savea, who were rested. Romano was dropped to the reserves, while Savea was out of the match 22 altogether.
That was unlikely to change the All Blacks' tactics, effectiveness or commitment as they close in on a perfect first Rugby Championship and the record for consecutive Test victories for top-tier rugby teams, which stands at 17 and is shared by New Zealand (1965-70) and South Africa (1997-98).
"It's great. We're starting to put a few performances together," lock Sam Whitelock. "But if we look too far ahead we're going to come unstuck. Nothing changes for us."
Meyer kept faith with the same team that beat Australia, giving a second start to the 20-year-old Goosen at 10 in the hope that the Springboks can challenge New Zealand both up front and out wide in Soweto. South Africa also need to improve their goal-kicking, after a string of misses against Australia, which was disguised by the five-try win.
"It's going to be tough. You don't beat the All Blacks by just pitching up," Meyer said.
The Kiwis also have the mental edge at the FNB Stadium despite South Africa's hopes that they can become a formidable venue for them.
The All Blacks won off a try in the dying minutes in the only other rugby international at the Soweto stadium, back in 2010 when the Springboks were meant to be celebrating former captain John Smit's 100th Test.Teams:
15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Jaco Taute, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Beast Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Marcell Coetzee, 20 Elton Jantjies, 21 Juan de Jongh, 22 Patrick Lambie
15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock
Substitutes: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Tamati Ellison