Boks v NZ: Soweto sizzler
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Never mind that the Castle Rugby Championship title has, not unexpectedly, been decided ahead of the clash of grand foes South Africa and New Zealand at FNB Stadium in Soweto next Saturday (17:00).
The All Blacks’ admirable 54-15 disposal of Argentina in La Plata put paid to any lingering hope the seemingly revitalised Springboks might have had of belatedly snatching the crown.
But at the same time there are unlikely to be any half measures on display when the world champions tackle their historically most respected rivals on their own terrain at the weekend ... “dead rubber” is very unlikely to be a dampening thought on the minds of the respective combatants.
The New Zealanders will be seeking to end the maiden campaign of this restructured competition with an unbeaten record, not to mention a 16th win on the trot which would take them to within one victory of matching records held by both the All Blacks and the Nick Mallett-era Boks of 17 in succession by top-tier nations.
As for South Africa, with good reason to be chuffed about a five-tries-to-one dismantling of the Wallabies at Loftus and a pleasing fresh sense of adventure, there can be no disputing that they would end the tournament on a statement-making high of their own - considering that this is their first season without a variety of once-legendary, World Cup-winning personnel - with a win on Saturday.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the probably jet-lagged All Blacks will field their strongest possible line-up on paper, although these days “rotation” can actually be a shrewd and strengthening device on a murderous first-class itinerary.
Hats off to them, too, it is not normally the New Zealand way to disrespect the rich tradition of battles with the Boks by putting out anything too closely resembling a second string – if anything, South Africa have sometimes been more shamelessly guilty of this.
You could also argue quite strongly that both sides go into the fixture with a score to settle, given that the Boks lost in Dunedin recently but their opponents also knew deep down that perhaps they ought to have been beaten on the day.
In addition, Jean de Villiers’s outfit seek to confirm second-placed finish on the Championship table; a bonus point on Saturday, even if they lose, is almost certainly enough to ensure that the injury-decimated Wallabies cannot even overhaul them by
earning a full house of five points (unlikely under current circumstances?) in Argentina.
Boasting a four-point advantage in log-point terms, South African are presently also 69 points better off on a “for and against” basis.
What is becoming clearer is that, once again, the regrouping Boks are shaping up as likeliest challengers to the All Blacks’ No 1 mantle and will seek to only underline that at FNB Stadium.
Perhaps stung just a little by portions of the local rugby public voting with their feet by leaving significant sections of Loftus unpopulated on Saturday – was it at least partly a statement of disapproval for the previously rigid, robotic, kick-obsessed game plan? – South Africa’s far more spontaneous, have-a-crack approach against the dishevelled Aussies would have given many of their diehard fans a really warm glow.
Understandably, the Boks may be reluctant to turn the All Black game into too much of a free-flowing, fast and loose spectacle because that could play too heavily into the eternally attack-desirous visitors’ hands.
But they certainly have the pack (already proved in Dunedin) to match or eclipse the New Zealanders both for quality ball and physical relish, and now with a more progressive approach to flyhalf play - initial warts and all, welcome, Johan Goosen
! - should also be in a far better position to keep the All Blacks guessing as to how they will play situations.
Skipper De Villiers and later also coach Heyneke Meyer
didn’t manage to pull too much wool over our eyes by suggesting that the Boks didn’t deviate a great deal from their prior formula.
Yes, Jean, and we all just saw a blue giraffe stampede down the streets of Sunnyside in sunglasses.
Speaking of De Villiers, he may be one of very few Bok players linked to possible alteration to team composition plans for the All Blacks challenge.
It is quite possible that the starting XV will get a blanket vote of confidence, although the availability of versatile Frans Steyn
, who sat out Loftus injured, is not yet known.
Should he be passed fit for Saturday, it will introduce the dilemma of whether to vault him straight back into battle -- and whether that should be at No 12 again, meaning a return to less familiar outside centre for De Villiers.
The captain, albeit still struggling to capture his known best personal standards, looked much more at ease closer to the action in Pretoria, where he also seemed - not surprisingly - to be able to pull leadership strings more effectively.
Throw in the fact that debutant outside centre Jaco Taute warmed increasingly to the combat after a tentative start, and the return of the hefty Steyn is not a foregone conclusion, should he be given the green light for consideration.
Fullback? He is capable of doing a smart job there, although Zane Kirchner was much improved against the Wallabies and Meyer will be reluctant to ditch someone he has been stubbornly loyal to, under those circumstances. *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing