There will be motivation aplenty for both teams tomorrow when the All Blacks face the Springboks at Albany, but the most motivated of all might be the only guy in the All Blacks team who remembers what it is like to lose to South Africa in New Zealand.
They’ve pretty much all gone now, by way of retirement or fresh pastures or injury – both physical and emotional. They were the All Blacks who lost to South Africa 32-29 in Hamilton, and who watched on as the visitors held aloft the Freedom Cup and the Tri-Nations title. It was 2009, in between the angst of the 2007 Rugby World Cup exit and the elation of the 2011 Rugby World Cup victory. It was an in-between time, as it is now.
Six of that side – Tony Woodcock, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Mils Muliaina – would go on to win 100 caps for their country, before hanging up the boots or heading abroad. Some joined the diaspora early, while others stuck around and got their hands on Wiremu. It was a team that had a world champion spine, and yet for all the class it boasted, it was a team that still fell short on the scoresheet.
On that day, the All Blacks were harangued at every turn by a fearsome South African pack, and shellshocked by the field gun boot of Francois Steyn. They lost their lineouts and dropped their passes. They still managed to come within one scoring play of denying the Springboks back to back wins in New Zealand, that has to be acknowledged, but they were defeated in the end. Schalk Burger popped his rib that day, and left the field giggling.
Only one All Black from that game remains in the side to play tomorrow. As luck would have it, that player is the skipper Kieran Read. You can be he has not forgotten that occasion. Across from him that day were the likes of Burger, and Ryan Kankowski and Pierre Spies and Heinrich Brussow – each an exemplar of their particular area of expertise in the loose. They were by turns frightening and lightning. Their modern day equivalents – especially Siya Kolisi and Jean-Luc du Preez – have hallmarks of their forebears.
It was a Springbok victory built upon constant pressure, and a home team performance that in many ways is mirrored the mixed bag thus far served up by the All Blacks in 2017. There have been moments of genuine sublimity, but many more moments of uncharacteristic chaos, as if two axioms are at war within the All Blacks strategy – he who hesitates may well be lost, but surely less haste, more speed is required.
it was chaotic in 2009 in that match in Hamilton, and Read well knows that there must be calmness instilled in this team for the Albany test, and that he must be the one to instil it. The All Blacks say success is a lousy teacher, but home defeat is a schoolyard bully which taunts its victims and burdens them with a grudge that can last for many years. It has likely gnawed away at Read for the last eight of them. He will not wish to relive that feeling.
It seems crazy to think that he alone carries the memory of that last home defeat into this test match. Of that 2009 team only Read, Owen Franks and Jerome Kaino remain, and the latter duo are currently sidelined. It is Read’s burden this weekend, as is the leadership of a team that has at times been the Fourth of July, at others a damp box of firecrackers.
Read has stated publicly that the All Blacks will be on guard on Saturday night. Though South Africa’s fortunes have fluctuated far more wildly than those of the New Zealanders over recent years, the deep and abiding respect between these two great foes has remained the one true constant in the southern hemisphere.
The All Blacks humiliated the Springboks in Durban last year, but that will feel like a lifetime ago for the New Zealanders once the whistle blows this weekend. For Kieran Read, that result in 2009 will come to him as a whispered conversation from yesterday. And he will understand each word.
Of course, there is one thing he can feel good about. He may well remember the last time the All Blacks lost at home to the Springboks, but there is not one man on the other side of Saturday’s contest who can say they know what it is like to beat the All Blacks on New Zealand soil. Read will be desperate to make sure that’s the way it remains, for one more year at least.
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