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Tonight's victor could take a massive advantage into the Rugby World Cup

The All Blacks and the Springboks will play each other twice – maybe even three times – in 2019, and each match between the sides will increase in importance.

After disposing of Argentina and Australia, the two South Hemisphere sides will meet in Wellington tonight in a game which will likely decide 2019’s abridged Rugby Championship.

On the 21st of September, the rivals will square off again in their first match of the World Cup. Depending on how things go, New Zealand and South Africa could then meet in the tournament final, six weeks later.

Steve Hansen has understandably said that the importance of each result grows this year until New Zealand arrive at the World Cup. Whilst it would be nice to secure the Rugby Championship this weekend, there are still three matches to go before the World Cup kicks off.

Banking the Bledisloe Cup and the Rugby Championship will be of little consolation if New Zealand do not return from the World Cup with the trophy in hand, which is why every match is effectively a warm-up for the next. Until the World Cup knockouts arrive, of course.

Winning the World Cup will always be the primary goal for the All Blacks – but the path to victory can be significantly altered depending on how results go during the pool stages of the tournament.

Avoiding Ireland at World Cup could be key

The winners of Pool B play the runners up of Pool A, whilst the winners of Pool A play the runners up of Pool B. Ireland, Scotland, Samoa and Japan will all be eying up a qualifying position from Pool A, but if everything goes as should be expected, then Ireland will come out as top seeds with Scotland trailing not far behind.

Whilst neither of those teams are easy beats, only Ireland have tasted success against the All Blacks. Scotland came close in the two sides’ encounter at the end of 2018, almost scoring on the stroke of halftime, but Ireland have won two of their three most recent clashes.

Johnny Sexton of Ireland converts a penalty during the match between Ireland and New Zealand. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Purely from an outcome-based approach, the All Blacks will be keen to avoid Ireland at the quarter-finals stage (even though Ireland have never progressed past the quarter-finals) so will be aiming to top their pool.

That being said, a second-place finish wouldn’t be the end of the world. Argentina finished second to New Zealand in their pool at 2015 World Cup and still made it to the semi-finals. In 2011, New Zealand were the only pool winner to progress to the semi-finals, while finalists France started out in the same pool as the All Blacks, who won the tournament. 2007’s semi-finals included two pool champions and two pool runner-ups.

Still, we are yet to see a world champion emerge who has dropped a match during the tournament – so both New Zealand and South Africa will be pushing hard come the World Cup pool stages.

Which brings us to this weekend’s match.

Close to full strength line-up – but not quite

Tonight we get to see a vastly changed team from the one that Steve Hansen rolled out against the Pumas. Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett are the only players retained in the starting XV from last weekend’s match. First-choice players Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane have slotted back into the side whilst Codie Taylor, TJ Perenara and Jack Goodhue are all fairly like-for-like replacements for the men whose spots they’ve taken.

Whether the selectors targeted this game as an opportunity to roll out what would be close to their top side is uncertain. Perhaps that’s simply the way the cards have fallen due to the forced absence of the Crusaders players from last weekend’s fixture.

The All Blacks squad will be trimmed down to 34 players for the Bledisloe series, which means that a number of men are playing for spots this weekend – while others probably already had their last chance in Argentina. Certain All Blacks will be playing for a place in the squad, which will make for an absolutely thrilling match.

Lack of dominance makes this one a must-win

Perhaps Steve Hansen doesn’t see this match as a must-win, but a certain amount of confidence will be gained for the World Cup re-match by whichever team emerges victorious tonight.

New Zealand hasn’t always performed so well in the build up to World Cups. In 2015, the Wallabies tipped over the All Blacks 27-19 in Sydney. Similarly, the All Blacks fell to both the Springboks and the Wallabies away from home in 2011.

The scenarios in those two seasons were a little bit different, however. The All Blacks have had a huge stranglehold on the Wallabies for a number of years now. It’s been 17 years since the Wallabies last held the Bledisloe Cup, which means that Australia haven’t come out of year with a positive win ratio over New Zealand in the same period of time. Slipping up to the Wallabies in 2015, therefore, was an anomaly. The All Blacks also had the opportunity to avenge that loss just a week later, which they duly did, accounting for the Wallabies 41-13.

Dan Carter pulled the strings for the All Blacks against the Wallabies in his final home appearance for New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Similarly, in 2011 the losses to South Africa and Australia didn’t hit quite as hard because those fixtures had both been away from home. The All Blacks didn’t send their full-strength side to Port Elizabeth so the 18-5 loss wasn’t a horrible outcome (especially as the All Blacks thrashed the Springboks 40-7 in the earlier fixture). The loss to Australia was a bit more of kick in the teeth, but the All Black’s persistent dominance over the Wallabies meant it wasn’t the end of the world.

In 2019, however, things have changed. The All Blacks and the Springboks have fought out three very close matches in the last three encounters. In the second fixture of 2017, New Zealand triumphed by just one point in Cape Town. Last year, the away teams emerged victorious in both games, with three-point margins in both encounters. New Zealand have had no dominance over South Africa in the last few meetings, which means that tonight’s match counts for everything.

All on the line in Wellington tonight

If the Springboks lose by a close margin, it probably won’t significantly harm their World Cup preparations. After all, the match is being played in New Zealand. If the Springboks do somehow triumph, however, then they will take a massive mental advantage into the World Cup, knowing that they’ve had the rub over New Zealand in the last two years – even away from home.

Losing against the Springboks won’t be the end of the world for New Zealand; there are plenty of more important fish to fry this year. The winner of tonight’s game, however, will take an advantage into the World Cup – even if it is a small one. Steve Hansen has resisted in putting out a full-strength team – though it’s not far off it – only time will tell whether the right decision has been made.

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Tonight's victor could take a massive advantage into the Rugby World Cup