Winning in SA the ultimate: NZ
Sam Cane (Getty Images)
Johannesburg - With another southern hemisphere title locked away, world champions New Zealand would produce undeniable evidence of their current dominance by winning in South Africa in the final round of the Rugby Championship this weekend.
While there have been suggestions the All Blacks might lose some focus after putting 50 points past Argentina to convincingly wrap up the competition with a game against the Springboks to spare, the camp on Monday dispelled any thoughts of slowing down against their old rivals at the 94 000-seat FNB Stadium in Soweto this Saturday.
A win in South Africa in its own right is highly prized, forwards Sam Cane and Sam Whitelock said.
"We've won the championship but we've parked that now," young flanker Cane said. "What we're focused on is winning over here. They've always been big Test matches and it's always more rewarding, hearing from the older guys, to win over here because of the challenge."
But for top-ranked New Zealand, yet another victory would also allow them to finish the inaugural four-nation championship with six wins from six and a 16th consecutive Test victory - one off the best winning runs by a top-tier nation, which New Zealand and South Africa share. Lithuania currently hold the world record with 18 wins on the trot.
"The challenge for us to play well this week and put a solid performance together is huge," second rower Whitelock said. "With the competition being new, it will be great to start it off with a clean sweep."
A second straight victory at the imposing FNB Stadium for the All Blacks - following their come-from-behind success in 2010 - would also be sweeter than most.
"We talked about last week playing against the Argentinians at home and then coming to play the South Africans here," Cane said. "They are probably the toughest two places to win in world rugby. If we can do that, we'll be pretty happy."
The Springboks showed a mini-revival to physically batter Australia in Pretoria last weekend. The test now for New Zealand's players is to shrug off a long trip from Argentina and the effect of the altitude up on the South African highveld - where South Africa tend to be at their strongest.
Whitelock said the problem of fatigue would be "next to minimum" by the weekend.
Instead, negating the influence of about 90 000 people at the thunderous stadium formerly known as Soccer City and the venue for the 2010 Soccer World Cup final was more of a factor.
The All Blacks did that brilliantly in La Plata against the Pumas, silencing a rowdy Argentinian crowd with a clinical first-half display despite conceding an early try.
"I guess the big thing they've got is that they'll have about 90 000 Africans behind them. We'll want to start well," Cane said, "and similar to what we did on Saturday, take the crowd out of it early."
New Zealand beat South Africa in the only other rugby international in Soweto two years ago, running down South Africa in the dying minutes through Israel Dagg's last-gasp try.
This time, another New Zealand success would be a clear indicator - if their title win isn't already - that the All Blacks are now some way ahead of their chasers.
They're also bent on more success.
"For us, the challenge of playing well every week is definitely there and that's something we're striving to do," Whitelock said. "Steve (Hansen, the coach) and the whole team are really keen to improve."