The All Blacks have deviated from the usual pre-match script ahead of the Test in Pretoria. It’s a good sign for the Springboks as well as a boost to a rivalry that’s been in danger of fading into irrelevance over the past three years.
Several players have come forward since the loss to the Boks in Wellington and spoken of a collective desire to set the record straight. At a press conference held in Johannesburg earlier this week, Ryan Crotty, one of the leaders in the side, went out of his way to remind local reporters that the All Blacks are still the team to beat.
Something should be read into Crotty’s comments and demeanour at that press conference, though. The Boks rattled the All Blacks with their offensive defence in Wellington. When this was put to Crotty, however, he spoke of weaknesses in the Bok defensive system and how they could be exploited by a more accurate side.
The Boks scored five tries against the All Blacks, a remarkable feat given their attacking struggles in New Zealand over the years. When this was pointed out to Crotty, the veteran centre shrugged.
“We gifted them a couple of tries,” he said matter-of-factly.
Hooker Codie Taylor attempted to duck a barrage of questions that encouraged a comparison between himself and Bok counterpart Malcolm Marx. Crotty jumped in with an assertion that, given the choice, he’d take Taylor over Marx any day of the week.
Talk about showing a red flag to a bull. If Marx doesn’t view this statement as a challenge, the partisan crowd at Loftus – one would expect a large contingent of Lions fans to make the 40km journey north – certainly will. Did Crotty really need to give 52,000 South African fans another reason to heckle and abuse the All Blacks this Saturday?
It’s hard to remember when last the All Blacks were this cocky in public. Then again, it’s been a long time since the Boks beat the All Blacks in a game that really mattered and gave the global community cause to look upon the rematch with real interest.
The Rugby Championship title won’t be on the line when the teams clash at Loftus on Saturday. The result, however, could echo into the November Tests – where the All Blacks will face Ireland and England – and indeed the 2019 World Cup. Two wins against the All Blacks would do wonders for a developing Bok side ahead of the Pool B showdown between the teams in Yokohoma next September.
The Boks should take the All Blacks’ pre-match banter as a genuine sign of respect. The All Blacks are coming forward in the media with bold and unsolicited statements. They’re playing mind games and trying to unsettle their opponents before kickoff.
It’s a good sign for the Boks, and a great result for the rivalry. The All Blacks desperately want to win this match. Going by what’s been said in the Bok camp, the hosts won’t want for motivation either.
In 2013, there was a similar buzz in the buildup to the All Blacks-Boks fixture. Heyneke Meyer’s side went into the game at Eden Park on the back of nine consecutive victories. The manner in which the Boks dismantled the Wallabies in Brisbane prompted critics in New Zealand as well as South Africa to wonder if the Boks were finally ready to challenge the All Blacks at the New Zealand rugby fortress.
Then referee Romain Poite burst the bubble with a series of poor and – by most accounts – game-wrecking decisions. The buzz was there again in the buildup to the next meeting at Ellis Park, and the All Blacks settled many a debate when they emerged comfortable winners.
There’s no denying that the All Blacks are well ahead in this rivalry as far as results in the professional era are concerned. Since 1996, the Boks have won 25% of their Tests against the All Blacks.
As bad as that record looks, South African fans can reflect on the late 1990s and most of the 2000s as the good old days when the Boks beat the All Blacks regularly at home. Since Steve Hansen took charge in 2012, however, the All Blacks have won five of out six Tests in South Africa.
Will those numbers matter this week? Ask Crotty and company if they’re comforted by the fact that the All Blacks have dominated the fixture in recent times, and if their excellent record at Loftus means anything at all.
Three weeks ago, few would have predicted that the Boks would get within 10 points of the All Blacks, let alone beat them in New Zealand. Now, after that rousing performance and monumental result in Wellington, there’s a question mark hanging over the fixture at Loftus.
The Boks have already beaten the All Blacks, and the players as well as the public have a concrete reason to believe that the men in green and gold can succeed again. The All Blacks will be favourites to win, but few if any will make that prediction with pre-Wellington certainty.
Perhaps this is the greatest indicator that the Boks have progressed and that there is life in the old rivalry yet.
Jon Cardinelli is sarugbymag.co.za’s Chief Rugby Writer