A historic chapter in rugby’s greatest rivalry will be written when the Springboks and All Blacks collide for the 100th time in Townsville on Saturday.
The epic clash of the titans kick-off the fifth round of the Rugby Championship with New Zealand virtually assured of the title. With a 10-point lead over second-placed South Africa, the unbeaten men in black need just a single log point from their back-to-back meetings with their top rivals over the next fortnight to secure the silverware.
Saturday’s other encounter is also an intriguing one as the resurgent Wallabies take on the Pumas.
New Zealand v South Africa
Saturday 25 September – 9:05
It’s unfortunate that the Springboks aren’t at their best going into this historic showdown. They looked far from a world champion side in their successive losses to Australia over the past two weeks and by coach Jacques Nienaber’s own admission, they’re coming off their worst performance since succumbing to Argentina in 2018.
A Springbok backlash was expected after the heartbreaking 28-26 loss on the Gold Coast, one similar to how they bounced back to win the British & Irish Lions series after losing the first Test. Instead, things went from bad to worse as they were comprehensively outplayed by the Wallabies at the weekend.
The error count only increased and their greatest strength turned into a weakness as the stonewall that was the impregnable defence on which their World Cup triumph was built eroded into a picket fence-esque structure that was easily breached and leaked four tries in the 30-17 defeat.
That poor execution of their conservative gameplan and shocking discipline carried over from the first to the return fixture against the Australians were disappointing and alarming, however, it’s the defensive horrors that are haunting heading into battle against the kings of potent perpetual motion.
Pride in the Springbok emblem combined with the rich history of this titanic rivalry that’s in focus this week will ensure a different South African side show up in Townsville. Bank on it that the belief in their structures remains as strong as ever and will match their motivation, but there’s no quick fix when it comes to regaining the confidence that was notably drained from them over the past fortnight.
The All Blacks, in turn, will be brimming with confidence having dominated all comers this year and dethroned the Springboks as numero uno in the world rankings courtesy of their 36-13 win over the Pumas at the weekend. That a second-string side scored that victory means a full-strength All Blacks team will be as fresh as they are fierce.
Expect a hard-fought battle in which the Springboks explode off the line and clatter into the Kiwis with brute force to limit their time and space on the ball. Given their defensive frailties since landing Down Under, however, it’ll take a truly special effort from the Springboks to limit an All Blacks team averaging 36.5 points per game this campaign to the point where one or two tries along with Handre Pollard’s boot will be enough to upset the favourites under clear skies.
Prediction: What makes the All Blacks a different beast is their ability to convert opportunities into tries lightning-quick and consistently and you have to think they’ll find and exploit the holes in South Africa’s defence to get the job done. All Blacks by 10.
Australia v Argentina
Saturday 25 September – 12:05
Despite suffering a fourth loss on the trot last weekend, the Pumas will be buoyed by the improved effort they put forth against the All Blacks. They finally showed the bite they lacked in the preceding listless lashings and Santiago Carreras was a breath of fresh air at flyhalf.
Exceeding all expectations in his first-ever outing at No.10, he injected much-needed ingenuity into a previously stale backline, attacking the line and creating a great try for Emiliano Boffelli with a perfectly weighted chip into the corner.
Consider also, that stylistically, the Wallabies are the most favourable of the three great Southern Hemisphere opponents in Argentinian eyes. For the most part, they’re not quite as lethal on attack as New Zealand or as overwhelmingly physical as South Africa.
This is reflected in the recent results in this rivalry, with four of the last five meetings dating back to 2018 being decided by six points or less. The Pumas broke their duck on Australian soil (23-19) with the Wallabies then winning the next two (45-34 and 16-10) before they played to back-to-back draws (15-all and 16-all) in last year’s Tri-Nations.
That the Wallabies stood up so well to the Springbok brutes in the trenches was the most important takeaway from their successive victories. Their markedly improved defence also makes them solid favourites, having restricted the Springboks to just a single try last weekend, while finding their rhythm on attack spells trouble for the Pumas.
Prediction: While there’s reason to be optimistic that the Pumas can pull off an upset, the Wallabies have found their footing with Quade Cooper in the saddle and they won’t allow complacency to spoil the momentum they’ve built over the past fortnight. They have all their bases covered compared to Argentina, so they should prevail relatively comfortably. Wallabies by 14.