After promising starts to the year, the All Blacks and world champion Springboks face a moment of truth in their contest for the Rugby Championship and preparation for the World Cup when they meet Saturday in Auckland.
South Africa beat Australia 43-12 and New Zealand defeated Argentina 41-12 in first-round results in the Championship which were almost equal on merit. Now they meet in a second-round match which almost certainly will decide the Championship at Mount Smart Stadium, a rugby league ground called on to host the match because Eden Park has been turned over to soccer's Women’s World Cup.
The surroundings are insalubrious but the match may be momentous. The winner will have far fewer concerns than the loser in the two months left before the start of the World Cup in France.
Both teams used lineups in the first round they didn’t intend to use in the second. The All Blacks have made five changes to their starting 15 while the Springboks have named 10 of the 14 players who missed the Wallabies match and were sent ahead to New Zealand.
The All Blacks have shifted the axis of their backline, bringing back Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf after Damian McKenzie played well in Argentina and have re-established a tested but not always successful play-making partnership with Beauden Barrett at fullback.
The team is close to the one the All Blacks selectors had settled on by the end of a 2022 season which contained some historic losses, shaking the confidence of many fans in the direction of the All Blacks under head coach Ian Foster.
Foster now is confident the team is on the right track and Saturday’s match will be the ultimate test of that.
“We think we have taken some steps and we think we have in place, not only for the present but for the next six months, things we feel good about,” Foster said. “I know we are just at the start of our campaign and every day we are treasuring because it’s a chance to spend time together and get our game sorted. I think the team is in a great spot . . ."
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber read reports from New Zealand last year of an All Blacks team in crisis and treated them with skepticism. He had good cause to do so.
The Springboks faced the All Blacks at Ellis Park in last year’s Rugby Championship after New Zealand had lost a test series against Ireland at home for the first time and lost a week earlier in South Africa. The All Blacks won 35-23, a result that likely saved Foster’s job.
Nienaber is not ready to believe reports of the All Blacks’ demise just yet.
“I remember when it was being written about last year and how some were saying that the All Blacks are in a crisis,” he said. “I found it interesting that some were saying that if they lose two in a row their win ratio dips below 80% and it would represent a major problem because a lot of other teams are actually striving for such a win percentage."
Fans will await with interest the forward contest on Saturday to see where both packs stack up at this stage of the year. The All Blacks pack has improved under the guidance of coach Jason Ryan but this will be its biggest test.
“I think this week will be a real tell for us as a team and especially as a forward pack,” hooker Codie Taylor said. “They’ve probably got one of the most formidable packs in the world in terms of size and ability and the way they play the game.”