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FEATURE How the Springboks can storm New Zealand's fortress

How the Springboks can storm New Zealand's fortress
11 months ago

Surely the All Blacks are favourites to win in Auckland this Saturday? In the past, this sentence would have been framed as a statement rather than a question, because until six years ago, the All Blacks were invincible and – much like Thanos – inevitable is this part of the world.

But like Thanos, the aura of the mighty All Blacks has been vanquished in recent years. Since losing a Test to the British & Irish Lions in Wellington in 2017, New Zealand has surrendered further home results to South Africa, Ireland (two) and Argentina.

As another epic encounter against the Springboks looms, the All Blacks’ proud record in Auckland is under threat, as is their mental grip on South Africa. While both teams claimed convincing bonus-point wins in the first round of the Rugby Championship, the Boks appear better prepared for the all-important second clash, having sent an advance party of 13 players to New Zealand last week.

In a sense, the Boks have been building towards this scenario for the past six years. While they have plenty to gain from the coming fixture – which could determine who wins the truncated Rugby Championship title and who takes psychological points into the subsequent World Cup – they will be mindful of what the game represents in the context of the New Zealand-South Africa rivalry. The narrative of the latter may be about to change.

So, how did we get here?

Rassie Erasmus has developed a reputation for backing up his bold statements and proclamations with big results and trophies. Few took him seriously back in 2018 when he insisted that the Springboks had the players to win a match in New Zealand, a World Cup in Japan, and later, a series against the Lions.

Back then, of course, such results seemed impossible. The Boks had declined to the point where former coaches and players described 10-point defeats to the All Blacks as moral victories. South Africa hadn’t won in New Zealand in nine years, and had won three times overall during professional era. When Erasmus took the coaching reins, the memory of the 57-0 massacre in Albany in 2017 was still painfully fresh.

Anton-Lienert Brown
The Springboks were humbled with a record 57-0 loss to the All Blacks in 2017 (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Six years and several major title wins later, however, and Erasmus has been vindicated. What’s more, a new storyline around the rivalry is starting to take shape.

“It’s down to the belief in the current group,” says Jean de Villiers, a former Bok captain and one of the few players to have won in New Zealand on two separate tours – in 2008 and 2009.

“The Boks didn’t have that belief when they travelled to New Zealand back in 2018. Sure, most teams will go into a game thinking they can beat an opponent. In this respect, few teams genuinely believe they can win – and that’s because they haven’t won before.

“When the Boks went to New Zealand in 2018, they had with one player – Beast Mtawarira – who had won there before. Rassie and the coaches worked hard to prepare the team for that clash in Wellington and to instil a sense of belief, but the players still had to go out and get the job done.

We saw how Ireland and Argentina won in New Zealand in the wake of the Boks’ 2018 victory. When one team does it, there is suddenly a concrete reason to think that a win in this part of the world is achievable

Jean de Villiers

“We saw how different it was when the Boks went back in 2019, and picked up a 16-16 draw. They have travelled to New Zealand with the same attitude this past week. They know they can win, because they’ve enjoyed success here recently.

“We saw how Ireland and Argentina won in New Zealand in the wake of the Boks’ 2018 victory,” De Villiers adds. “When one team does it, there is suddenly a concrete reason to think that a win in this part of the world is achievable. It’s very much a mental thing when you play there, knowing that history is against you and how good the All Blacks are in their own backyard. If you can overcome that, you can improve your chances of victory.”

Erasmus overriding goal has been to transform the Boks into a team that can win consistently and eventually dominate Test rugby. He said as much in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama, and again after the Boks won a fiercely contested series against the Lions in 2021.

Ireland v New Zealand
Ireland won their first Series on New Zealand soil last summer to break the All Blacks’ aura of invincibility (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

While Ireland and France have taken the lead at the top of the world rankings in recent years, the Boks have continued on an upward trajectory. That progress is perhaps best illustrated by how they’ve improved in matches against the All Blacks – their arch-rivals for more than a century. They are on the cusp of another major achievement this Saturday in Auckland.

The stats as well as the results of the past six years show how the Boks have clawed their way back in this rivalry

The Boks ended a nine-year drought when they won in Wellington back in 2018, and broke the records for points (36) and tries (five) scored in New Zealand. The 2019 season witnessed a 16-16 draw in Wellington, and a 23-13 victory for the All Blacks in Yokohama.

Post Covid, the spoils have been shared, with the All Blacks winning two (19-17 in Townsville in 2021, and 35-23 at Ellis Park in 2022), and the Boks winning two (31-29 on the Gold Coast in 2021 and 26-10 in Nelspruit last year).

New Zealand as well as neutral fans may dismiss these results, and point to the fact that the All Blacks – in spite of their recent decline – have retained the Freedom Cup. Indeed, it’s been 14 long years since South Africa lifted this trophy, and it’s the one piece of silverware that continues to elude Erasmus and right-hand man Jacques Nienaber during their six-year tenure.

Long-suffering South African fans may argue that these recent results deserve to be celebrated. It’s been a long time since the Boks have been viewed as a consistent threat to the All Blacks, especially away from home.

Between 1921 and 2009, the Boks and All Blacks enjoyed a genuine rivalry, with the South Africans winning 42% of all Tests. Over the next six years, the All Blacks won 85% of their Tests against the Boks, although the average scoreline (26-17) was relatively respectable.

Across the 2016 and 2017 seasons, however, the All Blacks won all four Tests, averaging 43 points a game. Erasmus and company have done an excellent job to restore the Boks as a competitive force in past years, and to revive the contest around the Freedom Cup.

Last year’s Rugby Championship witnessed another mental lapse on the part of the Boks when they were humbled by an All Blacks side that had its back against the wall.

Some won’t be satisfied, though, until the Boks have taken charge of this rivalry. After beating the All Blacks in Wellington in 2018, the Boks dominated the early stages of the rematch in Pretoria. A series of defensive lapses, however, provided the All Blacks with a chance to hit back and claim a narrow win.

In 2021, the Boks appeared on course for a hard-fought victory in Townsville, before a couple of poor decisions handed the All Blacks a match-winning opportunity at the death. Jordie Barrett then proceeded to nail a touchline penalty attempt, and clinch the game.

Last year’s Rugby Championship witnessed another mental lapse on the part of the Boks. After recording their biggest margin of victory (16 points) against the All Blacks in nearly a century, they went into the next fixture at Ellis Park with a swagger in their step. In the end, they were humbled by an All Blacks side that had its back against the wall.

Malcolm Marx
The Springboks inflicted a 26-10 defeat on the All Blacks in Nelspruit last year but were bested the following week (Photo by Dirk Kotze//Getty Images)

This season, of course, will witness a different run of matches. The Boks will face the All Blacks once in a truncated Rugby Championship tournament. Thereafter, they will tackle New Zealand at Twickenham on 25 August, and possibly for a third time in the World Cup quarter-finals in October.

More on the latter matches in a minute. The Boks will be especially determined to tick the box in Auckland.

A win at Mount Smart Stadium would signify their first Test success in New Zealand’s largest city since 1937. What’s more, it would stretch their unbeaten run against the All Blacks in New Zealand to three matches.

That would be some turnaround in a rivalry that has been dominated by the All Blacks in recent times, and would ensure that the Boks took a psychological advantage into subsequent matches against their arch-rivals.

De Villiers led the Boks on their last visit to Auckland in 2013. South Africa went into that match on the back of three consecutive victories – a run that included a 73-13 hammering of Argentina in Johannesburg and a 38-12 thrashing of the Wallabies in Brisbane.

It will be less daunting for the Boks [at Mount Smart Stadium]. It doesn’t have the same aura and history around it. It’s unfamiliar territory for both teams, and in a sense, the Boks will prefer that.

The Boks started the match in Auckland well, but were severely compromised after hooker Bismarck du Plessis received two yellow cards for dangerous play over the course of the game, and eventually lost 29-15. There was an outcry in the aftermath – with Dan Carter himself declaring he had been felled by a perfectly legitimate tackle.

World Rugby subsequently eventually admitted that referee Romain Poite had erred in his decision to send Du Plessis off. By then, the opportunity to break the Auckland curse had passed.

“We were in a good space going into that game,” remembers De Villiers. “Obviously a few things went against us in the actual match, but I remember how good our physical and mental preparation was beforehand. We weren’t too worried about the history of not having won at Eden Park in 70-odd years, it was more a case of focusing on the actual Test match.

“I’d be lying if I said that playing at Eden Park wasn’t a big ask, though. This time round, the Boks won’t actually be at Eden Park. “It will be less daunting for the Boks [at Mount Smart Stadium]. It doesn’t have the same aura and history around it. It’s unfamiliar territory for both teams, and in a sense, the Boks will prefer that.”

Kurt Lee-Arendse
Kurt Lee-Arendse’s hat-trick of tries helped the Springboks to a comfortable win over the Wallabies (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The decision to send 13 players ahead to New Zealand – while the rest of the squad remained in Pretoria for the opening Rugby Championship Test against Australia – should boost the visitors’ prospects. Meanwhile, the All Blacks will trek all the way back from Argentina for this must-win clash.

“It’s an interesting one, because if you ask me whether the venue and conditions played a part at Pretoria last week – with Australia forced to adapt to the altitude – I’d say it absolutely did,” notes De Villiers.

“But the Boks don’t have to worry about that factor in New Zealand. Apart from facing the All Blacks, the biggest challenge of competing in New Zealand has always been the travel and the jet lag. Now that they’ve sent a group over 10 days before the game, that should be less of a factor.”

All that said, the chances of the Boks breezing to another 40-point victory – as they did last week – are virtually zero.

De Villiers enjoyed many battles with the All Blacks during his 13-year Test career. He has a healthy appreciation for what this team can do, and what this particular rivalry means to them.

I still believe that New Zealand are a very good team, and are not to be underestimated. Maybe we hold them to such a high standard, because we saw what that special group of players achieved in the 2010s

While recent results support the argument that they are a team in decline, they remain incredibly hard to beat.

“The reality of sport and life is that everything takes place in cycles. Some winning cycles, as we’ve see with New Zealand in the past 10 years, last longer than others.

“They’re a quality outfit, and no matter what’s happening externally it’s always a challenge to face them. They don’t take these games lightly, and neither do we. The personnel may change over the years, the situation may change, but that respect and determination to come out on top of the rivalry never does.

“Are the All Blacks where they are at present because of an internal decline, or because other nations like South Africa, Ireland and France have improved? I’d say it’s a bit of both. Test rugby has become a lot more competitive over the past few years. The tier-two nations have become a lot stronger, and the gap between the top nations has closed.

“I still believe that New Zealand are a very good team, and are not to be underestimated. Maybe we hold them to such a high standard, because we saw what that special group of players achieved in the 2010s.”

Indeed, the achievements of that great All Blacks side remain the benchmark. This Bok side may warrant comparison to Richie McCaw’s men if they win a second-consecutive World Cup title in France later this year.

It all starts with the next game in Auckland. If the Boks win this Saturday, they will travel to Twickenham this August with the belief that another New Zealand scalp is in the offing.

Jean de Villiers
Jean de Villiers was involved in multiple battles with the All Blacks in his 13-year Test career (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Following that, they could go into a potential World Cup quarter-final meeting with All Blacks as – whisper it softly – favourites.

“They will certainly be thinking along those lines,” says De Villiers. “They’ve beaten Australia, and if they win in New Zealand this week, suddenly they’re in a great position to win the Rugby Championship. That’s how it panned out for them in 2019.

“They will be looking ahead to the potential meeting with the All Blacks at the World Cup, too, as it would be great to go into that game knowing that they’ve already beaten the All Blacks this season.”

Results alone aren’t the reason why De Villiers and other South Africans are optimistic. The team has travelled to Auckland with a new box of tricks.

“They showed in the big wins against Italy and England last November, and against Australia at Loftus, that they have the ability to play a balanced game,” says De Villiers. “It’s very much a case of adding another layer on top of their existing structures. They’re harnessing their physical and kicking strengths, while backing their X-factor players on attack.

“I’m excited about what they could achieve in Auckland. Rassie and Jacques have always highlighted the importance of South Africa’s strengths, but lately we’ve seen them showing more intent and variation on attack. They’re moving in the right direction, and it bodes well in a crucial year for South African rugby.”


jason 337 days ago

Easy win for ABs

Rugger 337 days ago

Boks will be screwed again as usual, I was at Ellis Park last year two rollbacks on Bok tries, one claiming a scrumhalf stopped a lock from a tackle a over minute before the try was scored?

If That level of rollback 'Interference" was applied to all matches history would be different. Of course being forced to play Dweba at No2 for Quotas also didn't help. This author on recent history handily glosses over this fact.

Boks are the only team facing this now 'undiscussed fact'. New Zealand officiating gave us the now infamous Bizmark 2 yellows to a red card, when we were bossing them. The Rugby Championship is designed for NZ. Aus isnt travel for them & they are perpetual bridesmaids vs NZ. Puma's & RSA have to Travel to AUS, and it definitely effects both outcomes & officiating, Australia must have wins or the game dies there, and they not getting them from the AB's.

This gave us the perversion of a nick White moustache finger whipping, postponed by 30 seconds then a fall & yellow card for Faf. RSA were right to get out of these venues of farce & go URC. World cups are where howlers like Nick White & Biz Du Plessis happen far less, and are where RSA measure their prowess. We also had Korionbete's shoulder charge on Mpimpi go unpunished but Mapimpi get a yellow for a beard stroke after a post try tackle, That firstly mainly Australian players took umbrage too, before Eben got involved.

The last outing just gone, he did a high tackle on Moodie wasn't looked at, then an off his feet shoulder & knee to head again on Moodie again w/o censor in a game Boks romped. A defo yellow for a green jersey.

The Championship is a farce & a NZ Champagne parade.

RWC matters although the Bryce Lawrence two forward pass calls in 2011AUS vs Boks, are a stain on the RWC, it saw Boks tossed out at Qtrs.

He later won an award from NZ Rugby! Followed by Jordans [RSA ref] farce blow vs McCaw in the final vs France saw France robbed, shows that RWC's aren't safe esp if held in NZ.

Prediction NZ win at home as always, Boks will fly into RWC as under dogs & outperform NZ in the actual RWC

Joseph 337 days ago

Possibly the worst All Black fan of all time. Just because they are not the best selections does not mean they are bad

  1. I'd rather have Soni over Marx, just for his size and lineout precentage
  2. Tamaiti Williams. What do I need to say? 140kg, 6'5, 22 years old, fit, can scrum both sides, and is silky smooth with the ball. Tomas du Toit has nothing on this menace.
  3. While Laulala isn't a great starter, he does provide decent impact off the bench in the scrum and carry count. He's mainly selected due to injuries. Better than VK, who is a lightweight short prop who only brings ballcarrying to the equation.
  4. Tupou Vaa'i. The next Whitelock. Definitely better than some tag-along like Snyman. While TV is slightly shorter, he is a bit heavier and athletic as he is younger. Also hasn't played in a Japanese League.
  5. PSDT and DP are pretty much even stevens. Basically the same player. Both are lineout options. Both are young. Both are workhorses.
  6. Obviously because of the 6/2 split its hard to make a point here. I do appreciate the selection of Vermeulen but I just don't get why he isn't starting. That Springboks loose trio is worse than the All Blacks loose trio. End of story.
  7. Braydon Ennor. Backup midfield. Must have been showing some good work during training to be selected. Was menacing v Chiefs in the SRP final. Fast, silky passing, sizeable frame. Obviously hard to compare him to GW. Definitely more comparable to someone like Libbok. Libbok is an excellent playmaker who routed the Wallabies last week. Though, the Aussies didn't really do anything to pressure him so it'll be interesting to see what happens this game. Overall, while hard to compare, pretty even I'd say.
  8. Galeb Glarke. Power winger. 30kg heavier than GW. 15cm taller. If the Springboks are gonna do their box-kick strategy then this is not the winger for it. Clarke>Williams in terms of selection process and gameplan.

Jmann 337 days ago

NZ are undefeated in 7 of the last 10 meetings between these 2 sides.

G 338 days ago

The ABs decline is due to Foster and his first group of assistants...they have improved with Ryan and Schmidt but the Foster bench for Saturday (a weak back selection) will not be enough especially away from Eden P

kwn 338 days ago

My bet is SA for the world cup. They will be 3 - 0 against All Blacks this year. A great year for SA rugby. I do not believe NZ can match the SA intensity this year.

Joseph 338 days ago

I don't think my man knows the difference between Mt Smart and Eden Park😭. We have to play in a bloody league stadium cuz of FIFA Women's WC.

Jeremy 338 days ago

Books look good but I think it's time to remind everyone that when they won the RWC in 2019, they beat Japan and then Wales to reach the final.

Michael 338 days ago

I have to admit the Boks go into this Saturday's game as favourites. They have everything going for them - formidable 14 person pack / reserves - hugely experienced attack minded back line - 10 players acclimatized and rested AND the big one we have Foster as head coach.

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