On Saturday, we return to the scene of one of South African Rugby’s greatest victories of modern times just a year on from that epic encounter.
The Westpac Stadium in Wellington will play host to the rematch of last year’s scintillating Rugby Championship Test Match, that saw the Springboks overcome the All Blacks 34-36 in the same stadium.
Steve Hansen has yet again seen fit to tinker with his backline as he finds space for both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett in the starting fifteen, whilst Rassie Erasmus has thrown little surprise into his selection after he sent nearly all of his starting line up to New Zealand before the other half of his squad had even kicked off against Australia last Saturday at Ellis Park.
It certainly wasn’t a vintage performance from New Zealand last weekend in Buenos Aires as Steve Hansen tried new combinations, whilst managing to blood plenty of new talent.
No points were scored by Hansen’s men in the second half whilst they soaked up plenty of pressure in defence and offered very little in attack. It made for a rare and unfamiliar performance for the watching Kiwi rugby public.
There were players missing that may well be nailed on starters but questions could now be asked about the strength in depth of the squad.
Hansen has again made changes to the side this week as some of his star players and stalwarts make a return. Only Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick survive from last week’s starting line up, with Smith and Barrett both shifting to different positions.
Smith will shuffle over to the right wing as Barrett drops to Full Back, allowing the mercurial Richie Mo’unga to start in the fly-half jersey.
Outside Mo’unga will be 33-year-old Sonny Bill Williams, who himself is probably in the last chance saloon for selection to this year’s Rugby World Cup. Injuries have not helped his cause in recent times but if anyone needs a big game this weekend then it is the Auckland Blues centre.
Kieran Read is back to captain the side at the expense of Ardie Savea and TJ Perenara gets the nod ahead of Aaron Smith behind Read at scrumhalf.
Unlike last weekend, the home team’s bench is loaded with experience and will look to make an impact where their predecessors didn’t. Dane Coles, Aaron Smith and Anton Lienert-Brown all have points to prove after quiet showings against Los Pumas.
Similar to his opposite number, Rassie Erasmus has also made 12 changes to his team. It is just Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Makazole Mapimpi that keep their places in the starting XV.
Etzebeth has relinquished the captain’s armband though and handed it over to Duane Vermeulen. The veteran Bull’s Number 8 comes back into the side alongside Du Toit and Kwagga Smith to form a new look back row.
Erasmus has replaced four of his tight five including a full change of personnel in the front row. Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff will pack down either side of Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert will partner Etzebeth in the second row as Lood de Jager drops out of the match day 23 completely.
Faf de Klerk comes back into scrumhalf after watching Herschel Jantjies’ man of the match performance last week. Jantjies starts on the bench.
Handre Pollard will look to be more expansive than Elton Jantjies was last weekend, especially with an exciting backline that includes Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am and Willie le Roux.
The Springbok bench boasts 350 Caps between them so they certainly have a squad that can maintain an 80-minute challenge against the World’s number one team.
This game has all the hallmarks of being an absolute classic. The South African’s will be travelling with a renewed sense of confidence following a solid start to the Championship and a near fully fit squad, with strength in depth in nearly every position on the field for the first time in Erasmus’ tenure as Head Coach.
The All Blacks just don’t look like a truly settled camp at the moment and Steve Hansen seems to have more question marks on his players than he does answers. Some of those question marks are around positively hard decisions he needs to make because of the world class operators he has at his disposal but some of the decisions he needs to make are due to certain combinations not quite firing the way he would like.
The make up of the back row, the midfield and the back three seem hard to predict for when these two rugby behemoths face off in the first game of their World Cup campaigns in Japan later this year.
That said and as previously mentioned, there are world class operators across the field and the leadership of Kieran Read does seem to bring a calmness to them.
Read himself will need to be at the top of his game on Saturday because there will be so much focus on the breakdown. The Springboks backrow is explosively mobile and the added bonus of Franco Mostert playing like an extra back row may just give them the edge in this area, especially with Sam Cane not in the picture this weekend for their opposition.
If they have any chance of winning this test, then that area of the game must be dominated and coupled with pressure on the 12 channel, where Sonny Bill Williams may be undercooked and lacking match sharpness.
The home team will be fired up for this though and looking to avenge last season’s unexpected loss in the same arena.
Mo’unga and Perenara will be pivotal to their success and with Jack Goodhue also in tip top form, I believe that they will gain the upper hand and although not convincingly, will sneak a win with a single figure difference.
NEW ZEALAND BY 8