Stage set for yet another epic
Johannesburg - For nearly a 100 years the All Blacks and Springboks have faced each other across rugby fields, black shirts on one side, green and gold on the other, and never needing any extra motivation to win the sport's most ferocious rivalry.
Just for good measure, there's a ton of added incentive this weekend in the heavyweight meeting of top-ranked New Zealand and No. 2-ranked South Africa in the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship finale.
A title is at stake.
Each has a hero returning to its ranks, a talisman back to inspire.
And the showdown is at a ground dripping with history for the world's most rugby-obsessed countries, a stadium that South Africa treasures because of a defining rugby and sporting moment featuring Nelson Mandela, and a ground New Zealand is equally galvanized by, maybe to put right its past failures.
Saturday's tournament decider at Ellis Park, the venue for the 1995 World Cup final between the teams, has enraptured two nations and possibly all rugby followers.
"Nothing compares to the pedigree of this contest," British newspaper The Telegraph said this week, adding "the whole rugby world will be watching."
The All Blacks, world and defending champions, are favourite to lift the title and continue their complete dominance of this championship and recent dominance of the game, needing a win, a draw or even a narrow loss for a 12th crown in 18 seasons.
They also have captain Richie McCaw fit again and back to start, recovering from a knee injury sooner than expected.
"Clearly, he's our captain, and he's been out for a little while," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said.
On the brink of his 120th test, McCaw needs little in the way of an introduction, a classy player and World Cup-winning leader whose colossal reputation matches that of the imposing inner-city cauldron of Ellis Park.
He also captains a team that has won five from five in the Rugby Championship, seven from eight against the Springboks and has held the mantle of the world's best outfit consistently for two years since winning rugby's main event in 2011.
Against that daunting New Zealand record, the Springboks must win on Saturday, score four tries and shut down the best attacking team in the world and deny it a losing bonus point to steal its first title since 2009.
The All Blacks have conceded just six tries in five games in the tournament, last let in four tries in a test three years ago and last conceded four tries to the Springboks nearly a decade ago.
Yet at Ellis Park nothing is too wild a dream for South Africans, who lifted the World Cup in '95, a year after its first democratic elections and in a heady tournament capped by new president Mandela's presence at the Johannesburg final.
Both teams were reluctant this week to compare this contest to that compelling and famous one, but South Africa's '95 World Cup-winning skipper Francois Pienaar wasn't.
"I think it sets up as maybe the biggest game since we were lucky enough to run out at Ellis Park," Pienaar said.
South Africa has beaten New Zealand the last two times they've met at Ellis, scoring four tries on both occasions.
But their last meeting there was 2004 and New Zealand's current crop may not be weighed by the history.
Even McCaw has never played a Test at Ellis Park.
Invigorated by the challenge and not intimidated by its hostile reputation is the All Blacks' mantra in Johannesburg.
"In the sheds after the (last) game there was a sense that the boys are pretty excited for this challenge," All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden said.
"We know it's going to be a massive one, the Springboks at Ellis Park.
"Yeah, there's been a bit of talk about it."
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer warned: "Ellis Park is not going to do it for us.
"The crowd is not going to do it for us, although it's a huge, huge help."
Dissecting the tactical implications of Saturday, South Africa, with hooker and crowd favourite Bismarck du Plessis restored to its starting line-up, also has to probably move away from its favoured physical and forward-dominated game to score the tries it needs to take the title.
That pressure to score and not just muscle out a win isn't lost on the slick All Blacks, the kings of pouncing on mistakes and counterattacking clinically.
"We know the South Africans will come at us with their physical game but to win the championship they will have to do that by scoring four tries so we are expecting more ball movement than we have seen in the past," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
"So the answer is pretty simple for us — we will have to match their physicality and be very accurate with our execution."
Kick-off is at 17:00 on Saturday.Teams:Springboks:
Zane Kirchner, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 JJ Engelbrecht/Jan Serfontein, 12
Jean de Villiers (captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du
Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Juandré
Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1
Substitutes: 16, Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö
Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Franco van der Merwe, 20 Siya
Kolisi, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein/Juan de JonghNew Zealand:
Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian
Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw
(captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Charlie
Faumuina, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock
Substitutes: 16 Dane
Coles, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Steven Luatua, 20 Sam Cane,
21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Charles Piutau