Blockbuster individual battles will add extra spice and spectacle to Saturday’s much-anticipated Rugby Championship opener between the Springboks and the All Blacks in Nelspruit, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Rugby’s greatest rivals are frothing to get stuck into one another and are set to start the war for Southern Hemisphere supremacy with a bang.
South Africa will target the chinks in the wounded New Zealanders’ armour whereas the black army will storm the gates of Mbombela Stadium and look to overwhelm the world champions by tapping into the depths of their warrior spirit.
To emerge victorious, key base battles will have to be won, none more vital than these head-to-head showdowns:
Frans Malherbe v George Bower
Malcolm Marx is in the headlines and rightfully so as he starts in the No 2 jersey to bring up his Springbok half-century. However, Malherbe is the men in green and gold’s biggest weapon on the front line, specifically when it comes to scrum time.
With their all-conquering tank of a pack, the hosts are planning to scrum as much as possible, particularly because the All Blacks are vulnerable without experienced props Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Nepo Laulala. Crusaders brute Bower will pack down against South Africa for just the second time in a new-look front row that includes Samisoni Taukei’aho and Angus Ta’avao.
The Springboks will pile on the pressure in the all-important set-piece and as much as every cog in the machine deserves credit, it’s Malherbe who’s the iron first. A true master of the dark art, the 1.9m, 125kg behemoth is the best tighthead in the world and remains one of the unheralded heroes of the Springbok team.
Saturday’s an opportunity for the veteran to command the spotlight. Throw in the x-factor that is Jason Ryan, the Kiwis’ new scrum coach, and the scrum battle will be anything but boring.
Lood de Jager v Scott Barrett
De Jager was one of the standouts in the Springboks’ recent 2-1 series win over Wales, producing towering all-around efforts in the engine room.
He boasts an impressive gas tank and skillset for a second-rower and while fans can expect another typically industrious performance from the seasoned skyscraper, his nous as lineout kingpin will be a major factor as the All Blacks misfired in this department in their historic home series loss to Ireland, functioning at just 81%.
Barrett was one of the selection posers under-fire Ian Foster had to grapple with this week. Back from injury, the utility forward was expected to be brought straight back into the run-on side but it was unclear whether it would be at blindside flank, where he played in the first Test against the Irish or at lock, where he featured in the second match due to Sam Whitelock’s concussion.
With his athleticism, his selection at No 5 could as easily bolster the lineout as it could backfire in the bigger picture as it leaves the All Blacks lean compared to the monstrous Springbok pack.
Faf de Klerk v Aaron Smith
Back in the No 9 jersey after being benched in the last two Tests, De Klerk will be determined to remind all of his class. Jaden Hendrikse maximised his starting opportunities against Wales in Bloemfontein and Cape Town and the rookie’s rise is just what the blonde-haired staple needs to get back to his best.
The Springbok game plan is heavily reliant on accurate kicking from the base, so all eyes will be on De Klerk. With his world of experience, the 30-year-old’s the right man for Saturday’s job and South Africa need and expect him to stand up against the old enemy.
Smith has been a vital driver of the All Blacks for the last decade, masterfully shifting the gears to cement his place among the greats as a Test centurion. He’s been usurped as the world’s best scrumhalf by French phenom Antione Dupont but is always dangerous with his rocket passes and shrewd sniping.
De Klerk is relishing the next instalment of their battle, saying, “We’ve become friends off the field, but once we’re on the field, it’s back to business. He’s one of their key players and he’s vastly experienced. That makes him unbelievably successful in what he wants to do. There’s a lot to learn from him; it’s always good to learn from one of the best players in the world.”
Handré Pollard v Beauden Barrett
He’s been a pivotal figure since 2014 and, yet, Pollard’s never been more important to the Springbok cause than he is right now. The risk the Springbok coaches are taking by not having specialist flyhalf cover on the bench this season leaves Pollard in a unique position, one that comes with added pressure.
If he is to go down, the backline will have to be reshuffled and South Africa will be sans a regular goal-kicker. This has to weigh on Pollard’s mind, as if he didn’t have enough on his plate as vice-captain, playmaker and place-kicker. Talk about a mental battle for a player who hasn’t been his sure-footed self since returning from a serious knee injury last year.
His solid showing in the series-clinching win over Wales, which saw him score a try and slot five from five for a 20-point haul, was a big step in the right direction but he’ll look to eliminate the errors that have crept into his game.
Barrett, like his long-time halfback partner, has played over 100 Tests. He’s a superstar of the game, a two-time World Player of the Year whose attacking prowess and speed are unmatched. He’s a wizard rather than a general, and one can argue the All Blacks need the latter more at the moment.
He has the ability to win games single-handedly, though, so he’ll have to be well-watched, to say the least.
Kurt-Lee Arendse v Caleb Clarke
As if fronting the Haka and tackling the All Blacks for the first time isn’t daunting enough, Arendse’s been matched up against a returning colossus in a David versus Goliath battle out wide.
The Springbok brains trust heeded our call to back Arendse in a like-for-like swap for the injured Cheslin Kolbe and the giant-killing defensive display he produced on debut against Wales in Bloemfontein should instil confidence that he’ll be up for this tall task.
To do so, though, the 1.8m, 76kg pocket rocket will have to be at his absolute best as Clarke’s not only a 1.84m, 107kg freak of nature but also more fired up than ever as he returns to Test rugby for the first time since November 2020. After bursting onto the scene that year, the Jonah Lomu-like winger opted to focus on Sevens last season and will be hell-bent on picking up where he left off.
The other side of the coin shouldn’t be forgotten and it’ll be very interesting to see if the man-beast will be able to get his big paws on Arendse if/when the hot-stepper gets an attacking opportunity.