Cape Town – These days you pretty much have to scratch New Zealand from the equation.
The All Blacks have won two of their last three Test matches against the Springboks at Johannesburg’s Emirates Airline Park – still “Ellis Park” to many, of course – to rather burst the bubble of home-town invincibility, at least as it affects that particular bilateral tussle.
But all other countries, as borne out statistically, still find the venue in the rather run-down Doornfontein suburb a tough, hostile place to play at.
It used to be the Boks’ sturdy fortress against all comers, until NZ won a 2013 clash there 38-27 and followed it up only two years later with another 27-20 outcome in their favour (although there was also a 27-25 SA triumph in between).
Helped by the fact that their Super Rugby franchises are increasingly comfortable playing in Highveld conditions – no longer too freaked out by altitude, and revelling in the hard, fast surface – the long-time world champions clearly don’t quiver at the prospect of visiting the stadium.
But all other nations still find it a notably unproductive place … including England, the Boks’ foes in the first Test there on Saturday (17:05 kick-off).
Although they have featured in only one post-isolation bilateral duel at Ellis Park, the English were comfortably enough seen off 36-27 in Heyneke Meyer’s second Test in charge in June 2012, for an early home sealing of the three-game series.
I was at that rousing, fast-paced match, and certainly got another powerful reminder, from the perfectly-placed press box, of the raw hostility and almost uniquely commotional feel to the ground (when close to packed, as is tipped this weekend) likely to be experienced by most visiting players.
The Boks scored four tries to three, although arguably were more convincing than that tally suggests, especially as they had built a powerful 25-10 lead by the break -- their opponents had a period of good second wind in the third quarter of the breathless affair.
Blindside flank Willem “Bone Collector” Alberts gave South Africa a near constant sense of go-forward before injury forced him off the park, and No 8 Pierre Spies had one of those regrettably too rare days (at least for the national team) where his rampaging athletic prowess came hugely to the fore.
There will be just one Bok survivor from that clash in their entire matchday 23 this weekend: loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira on his now 99th appearance.
England could field a few more, as all of Ben Youngs, Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw and Owen Farrell, who had roles in the 2012 fixture, are also in the current tour party.
Head coach Eddie Jones has taken the approach of only shifting to the Highveld a day or two before the Test match – they are primarily based in Durban, for the whole tour – and debate will doubtless only continue to rage over whether it is better to acclimatise to the rarefied air shortly before a match or considerably earlier than that.
But however well (or badly) they deal with that particular factor, England will know that the mighty All Blacks remain the only international team to be able to claim they have now largely mastered the Ellis Park stadium itself.
Taking New Zealand matches aside, the Boks have won all of their last 10 Tests at the venue against other, strictly bilateral opponents. (Another exception is the multi-nation 2009 British and Irish Lions, who won the dead-rubber third Test 28-9 after Bok coach Peter de Villiers controversially rested the nucleus of his “A-team” ahead of the then Tri-Nations.)
But in that period, Australia have been beaten at Emirates Airline Park four times, and all of France, Ireland, Scotland, Samoa, Argentina, and England themselves, once each.
The last Bok trip-up at the ground against any single country except NZ was in 2001, when France prevailed 32-21.
That is some 17 years ago, as reflected by the Bok team of the time containing long-retired figures like Rassie Erasmus, now the head coach, Andre Vos (captain), Mark Andrews, Etienne Fynn and Dean Hall.
Ellis Park: place of fear and loathing to all visiting Test comers?
Well, almost all …
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