The big question in the world of rugby this weekend is how quickly can the All Blacks bounce back? I have no doubt they will still be a force in next year’s World Cup, but can they beat the Springboks at Ellis Park on Saturday?
Coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane will be putting their positions on the line, desperate for the team as a whole to stand up and play like the All Blacks normally do. As bravely as they have tried to put a positive spin on the situation this week, the pressure and the strain on them has been clear.
Top of their wish-list for Ellis Park will be finding a way to handle the quick-rushing Springboks defence and their blitz-like kick-chase. Fans of the All Blacks from back in the day will be dismayed by how ragged the backline was under pressure last weekend in Nelspruit.
While South Africa’s rush defence was superb, it is not a new tactic and previous New Zealand teams have had the skill to counter it – remember wonderful players like Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Dan Carter and Christian Cullen?
Foster said after the Mbombela hiding that it was his team’s best performance of the year, and even on Thursday he said “we have certainly seen the team grow”. Springbok fans will be reminded of a similar state of denial when Allister Coetzee said there were positives to be taken out of their 57-0 thrashing at the hands of the All Blacks in Albany in 2017.
But this is a New Zealand team that seems desperately low on confidence, even their haka at Mbombela was subdued.
Their attack, in the face of outstanding offensive-defence from the Springboks, has been more jalopy than Porsche. But be warned, the All Blacks team that runs out on Saturday will still have a cutting edge if players like Richie Mo’unga, Caleb Clarke, Rieko Ioane and Aaron Smith find their mojo, along with Beauden Barrett coming off the bench.
It is not too much of a leap to say New Zealand rugby is suffering from a lack of exposure to South African teams following their departure from Super Rugby.
That competition between the Kiwi, Australian and Pacific islands teams is now even more about attacking, free-flowing rugby. Structured defences bringing massive physicality and constantly being in the face of the ball-carriers is not something regularly seen, and I believe the New Zealand backline has been shocked by the lack of time and space they have been given by both Ireland and the Springboks.
No longer referees’ pets
They also seem to be struggling to come to terms with the fact that they are no longer world champions, they are ranked only No 5 in the world and are no longer the referees’ pets. They seem astonished that they are not getting more protection from South Africa’s nasty kicking game.
Having been allowed to briefly watch All Blacks training this week, the number of passes going to ground and the number of dropped kicks I saw was startling.
But no-one outside of the camp can really know what is going on in the interior of the team. Are the Crusaders players, so dominant in Super Rugby, really busting a gut for their coach and captain?
Perhaps the minimalist, grimy décor of Ellis Park and surrounds will bring out the warrior spirit of what remains, on paper, a top-class team. Backs to the wall, will it be a case of fight rather than flight? If ever there was a time to throw out the form book, to be so desperate that confidence doesn’t matter, then it is Saturday.
Last weekend was a bizarre armchair ride for the Springboks, on Saturday it could be a whole different ball game.